Calls To Close Youth Prison Come As Women Staff Report Unsafe Work Environment

DOC Says It Has Enhanced Safety At The Juvenile Institutions

Cooper Lake and Lincoln Hills
Gilman Halsted/WPR

A Milwaukee coalition is again asking the state to close the Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake Schools north of Wausau.

The group Youth Justice Milwaukee held a news conference Thursday that featured lawmakers, clergy and psychologists calling for a shutdown of the troubled juvenile facilities.

Sixteen-year-old Klaranda, whose last name was not provided because she’s a minor, was an inmate at Copper Lakes School for Girls for nine months. She spoke about her experience, including spending one month in solitary confinement, at the news conference.

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“Copper Lake and Lincoln Hills needs to be closed. I hope the leaders in Milwaukee County will stop sending young people like me to a prison far away from our families,” Klaranda said, “We can be held accountable without being put in solitary confinement and being taken away from our support system.”

It’s WPR’s policy not to fully identify minors who have been involved in the justice system.

Critics of the facilities say the recent assaults against prison employees at the schools are largely the result of inadequate staffing.

Democratic state Sen. Lena Taylor, of Milwaukee, says she’s concerned for the children, and is also worried that help is not coming fast enough for staff who report they’ve been assaulted.

“The (state) budget happened and we still don’t have staffing numbers at the levels that we need to. Correctional officers have now also been harmed,” Taylor said at the news conference. “What are we waiting on? Does someone have to die?”

In a written statement, the Wisconsin Department of Corrections says it’s made significant investments at Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake to enhance safety and bolster education, programming and mental health services provided to youth.

The department also says it has increased staff training, including the development of an academy for guards on how to properly and safely handle different scenarios with inmates, and crisis intervention training.

Unsafe Working Conditions

While lawmakers are calling for the youth prison to be closed, a Lincoln Hills teacher is speaking out about working conditions for women at the prison.

Pandora Lobacz said female guards and teachers are routinely subjected to crude sexual language and behavior by juvenile inmates, and that management is allowing the behavior to continue.

Lobacz described an incident in November of 2016 in which she said an inmate openly masturbated in front of her and taunted her in class. She said prison managers did nothing.

“I guess exposing yourself, at least in our institution, and attempting to ejaculate is not chargeable, which I think as a female is disheartening,” Lobacz said. “Since then, the sexual harassment has increased daily in our institution and the management is not doing anything about it.”

Lobacz said the environment is taking a toll on the women who work there.

“You have female youth counselors that are leaving because they just can’t tolerate being mistreated, whether it’s being disrespected, whether it’s being sexually harassed, whether it’s being physically abused,” she said.

Lobacz was reportedly knocked unconscious by an inmate on Oct. 11.

In response to Lobacz’ allegations, the DOC said in an email, they take their responsibility to maintain a safe work environment seriously.

“DOC has zero tolerance for inappropriate behavior by inmates in DOC custody … If staff don’t feel comfortable addressing inappropriate behavior themselves, they can contact security staff to resolve the situation,” the statement read. “We encourage all staff to document inappropriate behavior in an incident report so institution leadership can take action. If the behavior violates DOC 373 of the Wisconsin Administrative Code, youth may be disciplined. If youth behavior rises to the level of potential criminal activity, it may be referred to law enforcement for criminal investigation.”

The statement enforced the importance of staff providing input to make improvements in the work environment, adding that, “As (DOC) Secretary Litscher noted previously, (staff) concerns are our concerns and we are willing to take action so our staff feel safe.”

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