MADISON, Wis. — Pandora Lobacz was trying to assert control of her classroom at Lincoln Hills youth prison when she ordered an inmate pacing in front of her desk to return to his seat.
“You’re not running this classroom. I am,” Lobacz recalls the boy saying, shortly before he punched the 4-foot-7, 110-pound teacher in the left eye, knocking her unconscious.
The attack was the most vivid example yet of what prison staff and state lawmakers say are worsening problems at Wisconsin’s Lincoln Hills School and Copper Lake School for boys and girls, after a federal judge’s order in July to curtail use of pepper spray, solitary confinement and shackles as methods of control.
Though the use of such techniques is out of step with similar institutions across the U.S., ending them has been difficult. Gov. Scott Walker’s administration told the judge earlier this month that it has not yet fully complied with the order because of ongoing “significant unrest.” And staff members blame the order for emboldening inmates who, they say, are confident they can get away with more than before.
“I’m terrified,” said Lobacz, who hasn’t returned to work since her Oct. 11 assault. “I’m terrified I was one punch away from being killed or paralyzed.”
Twenty-nine states and Washington, D.C., either prohibit the use of solitary confinement by law or practice within juvenile prisons, according to the Lowenstein Center for the Public Interest. Fifteen other states limit the amount of time juveniles can spend in solitary confinement.
Jeffrey Butts, director of the Research and Evaluation Center at John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York, said the Wisconsin prisons’ problems come from poor management. Staff who argue they need things like pepper spray, solitary confinement and shackles are saying “our culture within the facility has become so corrupted by violence we have no other options,” he said.
The methods “are not necessary, they don’t work and they just lead to more violence,” said Butts, who has researched youth justice for nearly three decades.
Problems at the Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake prisons, about 215 miles (345 kilometers) northwest of Milwaukee in the woods of northern Wisconsin, have been developing for years. Workers say conditions started to deteriorate more rapidly in 2011 when two juvenile prisons near Milwaukee were closed and teens were consolidated at Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake.
The FBI launched a sweeping probe in 2015 into allegations of prisoner abuse, sexual assault, intimidation of witnesses and victims, strangulation and tampering with public records. No one has been charged.
The American Civil Liberties Union and Juvenile Law Center filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of teen inmates focusing on the prisons’ use of pepper spray, hand and leg cuffs and solitary confinement.
Vincent Schiraldi, a senior research fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School who previously ran the juvenile corrections system in Washington, D.C., testified at a summer federal court hearing that Wisconsin’s use of those methods for punishment was excessive and “a substantial departure from accepted professional standards, practice and judgment.”
Since U.S. District Judge James Peterson agreed, calling the practices unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment, things seemed only to have gotten worse at Lincoln Hills. Earlier this month, two Republican state lawmakers wrote Peterson asking him to reverse his ruling.
“Your order has emboldened violent offenders to the detriment of those asking to serve their time and return to civil society,” the lawmakers wrote.
Peterson responded by saying he was committed to ensuring the safety of both staff and inmates. He asked Walker’s administration to provide an update on prison conditions by Nov. 10.
Walker, a Republican who’s on the brink of a campaign for a third term next year, and prison officials insist that the facility is safe for both guards and inmates. Last week, at Walker’s urging, a new interim superintendent was named at Lincoln Hills to fill a vacancy in place since September.
Walker said “multiple reforms” have helped to improve conditions at the prisons, including increasing physical and mental health staffing, improving training and pay for guards, requiring the use of body cameras to document interactions between counselors and offenders, and revising procedures to ensure transparency and accountability.
The state budget Walker signed last month calls for hiring more guards and other staff and upgrading infrastructure and security needs.
Lobacz, who has nearly 25 years of experience in Wisconsin’s juvenile prisons, said she went public about her assault in hopes it would spur change.
“What’s it going to take? Look at me,” she said. “Does a staff member or youth need to get killed? Does there need to be a full-scale riot?”
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