MADISON, Wis. — Workers at troubled youth prisons in northern Wisconsin told a state senator that conditions there are chaotic and they are afraid of getting killed by inmates, records released Friday show.
State Sen. Tom Tiffany released copies of emails and descriptions of telephone calls his office received from employees at the Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake juvenile prisons. They share a campus in Irma, about 30 miles north of Wausau and house about 160 inmates.
Tiffany, of Hazelhurst, and state Rep. Mary Felzkowski, of Irma, on Monday provided the records in a letter they sent to a federal judge asking him to reverse his order requiring the prisons to curb the use of certain disciplinary tactics at the prisons. Both are Republicans.
"I fear for my life going into work," one Lincoln Hills counselor told Tiffany's office, according to a description of a phone call within days of the July court order.
U.S. District Judge James Peterson ordered the prisons to reduce the use of solitary confinement, pepper spray and shackles to discipline or control inmates. Last week, Gov. Scott Walker's administration told the court progress was being made toward meeting the order but that "significant unrest" remains.
The prisons have been under federal investigation for prisoner abuse for nearly three years.
On Thursday, Department of Corrections Secretary Jon Litscher assured reporters that the prisons were safe for both inmates and workers.
But that's not what Lincoln Hills workers told Tiffany, based on the emails and phone records from his office.
One Lincoln Hills counselor told Tiffany's office he "had to resign. Nothing is going to change and the behavior is chaotic." A 49-year-old woman worker emailed Tiffany on July 27 and said "Every day for the past week or so, I am verbally sexually assaulted." She described vulgar and sexually violent comments that were yelled at her by inmates that became so intense she broke down in tears.
Another woman who called on July 26 said she was "scared to death" to come to work and was "afraid the kids may take over." She said one inmate grabbed a can of pepper spray and used it on staff during a disturbance where six inmates broke multiple windows and kicked in doors.
Marsha Levick is lead attorney at the Juvenile Law Center which joined the American Civil Liberties Union in bringing the lawsuit challenging the disciplinary tactics. She said the lawmakers' request to undo the order was misguided.
"The idea that the solution to this problem is more pepper spray and solitary suggests that no lesson has been learned," Levick said. "The bigger question is obviously what is it about the inability of the people who work in this facility to manage this population. This is not a story that you hear around the country. This is a story that increasingly looks like it's isolated to Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake."
ACLU attorney Tim Muth said in a statement that "the overwhelming research shows that juvenile justice systems which eliminate these practices are actually safer for both youth and staff."
Tristan Cook, spokesman for the state Corrections Department, had no immediate comment on the records released by Tiffany.