Crisis' Continued:Red flags reach Milwaukee
Warning signs went up in Milwaukee County in the fall of 2014.
Robin Dorman, the public defender in charge of the Milwaukee office, discovered one of her clients wasn't being sent to class or receiving treatment at Lincoln Hills. She soon learned that inmate wasn't the only one.
“To me, it was a complete breach of trust," she said. “It’s called Lincoln Hills School, and our kids weren’t receiving an education.”
Dorman alerted Children's Court Judge Mary Triggiano and Tom Wanta, who was in charge of delinquency services for Milwaukee County.
Dorman soon found out about allegations of abuse, fights and using segregation even when a psychologist recommended against it.
“Management is aware of all of these problems. Typically, when management becomes aware of a problem, the problem just gets worse,” one of Dorman's colleagues wrote in a memo.
Dorman passed that memo onto Milwaukee County Chief Deputy District Attorney Kent Lovern, who forwarded it to the Department of Corrections.
The department launched an investigation but hit a snag because Dorman said she couldn't provide more details, citing confidentiality rules. Internal investigators said they couldn't move as fast as they would have liked because they didn't have names or dates.
Nevertheless, corrections officials were soon convinced crimes by staff had occurred at Lincoln Hills. In January 2015, aides to Attorney General Brad Schimel agreed to launch a criminal probe.
Seven months later, Corrections Secretary Ed Wall got a personal alert that problems were continuing. On a visit to Lincoln Hills, teens thronged around him in the library.
"They're torturing us," they told Wall."Numb about the whole situation"
On every one of his shifts as a guard, Johnson would sharpen his 911 knife — a fishhook-shaped device workers use to cut ligatures if inmates attempt to choke or hang themselves. He used it so much it would quickly dull.
“There were so many suicide attempts on the girls’ side that you would lose track,” Johnson said in an interview with the Journal Sentinel. “One girl would hang herself, all the sudden you’d have four or five copycats."
It wasn't just suicide attempts. Inmates would harm themselves in other ways, cutting themselves with anything they could find and sometimes jamming pencils or plastic silverware into their wounds to make them worse.
“To work in a place like that and deal with so many tragedies, you do become sort of numb about the whole situation," Johnson said.
Johnson quit in January amid an investigation into inmates being injured. He contends he did nothing wrong.
Oct. 1, 2015, was a tense night in one of the cottages at Copper Lake. The workers weren’t getting along, and the inmates were screaming at each other.
Guard Lisa Brener turned on a large fan to drown out the arguments and try to calm the girls to sleep. Some complained they were cold.
One 15-year-old girl said if the fan stayed on, she was going to “tie off” — slang for hanging or choking herself. Guard Scott McKenna saw on a camera that the girl, who was in Copper Lake for robbery, had covered herself with a blanket.
With a supervisor's permission, he went in the room and took the blanket to make sure she wouldn't hurt herself under it.
Five minutes later, she was covered with a mattress. This time, McKenna didn't ask permission to go into her room.
“You’re not my daddy,” she screamed when he walked in. “You can’t tell me what to do."
The girl stood up suddenly. McKenna, who is almost a foot taller, pushed her against the wall with his hand on her neck, the girl and two guards later told investigators. The girl looked petrified but didn’t say a word, Brener said.
McKenna told investigators his hand was just below the girl's neck, on her clavicle.
McKenna threw her mattress into the hall. As the girl came up to him, he pushed her back with his forearm, according to investigators' reports.
The girl’s mother learned of the matter from the girl and a social worker, the mother said.
“I don’t want anybody putting hands on my kids, especially ones who are supposed to be protecting them,” she said.
The next day, McKenna was put on paid leave. He stood by his decision to go into the girl’s room to get the mattress even though he didn’t have permission.
“I would rather be explaining this than why a kid is dead,” McKenna told internal investigators.
The Lincoln County Sheriff's Department recommended District Attorney Don Dunphy charge McKenna with child abuse and strangulation. Dunphy consulted with Schimel's office, but more than a year later has not pressed charges. Dunphy said he hasn't been kept up to date on the matter since the FBI took over the overall investigation of Lincoln Hills.
The Department of Corrections fired McKenna but reversed course and allowed him to quit.
In a settlement with the state, McKenna is banned from seeking employment with the Department of Corrections again. Under the deal, he also got $6,000 from taxpayers.Improper training
Assaults at the prison often were linked to poor training — including by Lincoln Hills' use-of-force expert.
For 10 years, Dusty Meunier was the lead trainer at Lincoln Hills, but he trained staff improperly, investigators found. Security Director Bruce Sunde and Meunier's other bosses either didn't notice or didn't do anything to stop him.
In teaching workers how to break up fights, Meunier showed a video of a guard putting his knee in the back of a young inmate — without telling them the technique was improper and could cause suffocation or death. Investigators later found the knee-to-back move was routinely used by staff.
Meunier was supposed to emphasize to workers that they needed to be careful when handling juveniles because their bones could break more easily than those of adults. He didn’t do that.
Meunier didn't contact nurses when inmates were injured. He changed techniques for securing inmates without getting permission from his superiors. He reviewed incidents that appeared abusive but deemed them appropriate. He didn't require staff to file reports documenting when they used force despite policies that require them.
Meunier himself was ultimately found to have violated work rules in 16 incidents between 2013 and 2015. He was fired in May 2016.
In one July 2015 incident, Meunier led a group of guards as two of them blasted a dorm room with pepper spray after an inmate barricaded himself inside.
The cloud of pepper spray was so thick that it drove several staff members from the area. Meunier told the inmate to lay on the floor when he was ready to be removed. Staff took his roommate out but left the inmate inside on the floor.
He was left in the room with no one watching for almost six minutes. When the guards returned, they had him crawl into the hall because the pepper spray was so thick in the air they didn't want to enter the room.
A review conducted months later concluded the incident was "abusive since it appears (the boy) was intentionally left in the room for this period of time and that (he) was willing to cooperate with staff."Retirements followed by raid
The Justice Department investigation had been going on for almost a year when Evans' foot was mangled in the door. Two agents were on it, but only worked it part time.
Asked if more resources should have been dedicated to the investigation early on, Schimel said, "Yeah. Hindsight's 20/20."
The pace of the investigation picked up when Evans was hurt. Within days, state Department of Justice agents began seizing video from the institution's recorders.
Prison leaders didn't know what was going on.
“What is this all about?!?” Deputy Superintendent Wendy Peterson wrote Ourada, the superintendent, in a Dec. 2, 2015, email when she learned of the Justice Department visit.
For more than 15 years, Ourada and juvenile corrections director Westerhaus had integral roles in running Lincoln Hills. Now they were left out of the loop — and wouldn't get back in.
“Not sure what this is about,” Westerhaus emailed Ourada and Peterson when they learned guards from adult prisons would be brought in to monitor Evans, instead of Lincoln Hills staff.
Westerhaus and Ourada earlier had announced they would retire. But they abruptly moved up that timetable, retiring within days of Evans' foot being crushed.
They received their full benefits and were granted special permission to immediately cash out their unused leave time, with Westerhaus receiving $35,000 and Ourada $66,000.
Two days after they cleared out their offices, about 50 state law enforcement agents and attorneys descended on Lincoln Hills. Within weeks, they would hand the investigation over to the FBI.
Agents cut off the phone lines and told workers coming off their shifts that Saturday morning that they could not leave.
Prison staff members aren’t supposed to bring cellphones into the institution, but some did. They called and texted friends and family to tell them what was going on.
The agents interviewed workers and remained on site for weeks to talk to about 250 inmates. Eventually, they would conduct hundreds of hours of interviews.
Even as the raid unfolded, calamity flared in the prison. Hours after agents arrived, staff at Copper Lake found a 15-year-old inmate unconscious. The girl had taken pills and tried to hang herself.
The raid and the incident that led to it blindsided Milwaukee County officials, who had been given assurances by the Department of Corrections that their concerns were being addressed.
“We were tired of getting surprised," said Triggiano, the children's court judge.
Butler and another guard who had been on the scene when Evans' toes were smashed were put on paid leave. Butler quit within days.
The following week, chief psychologist Vincent Ramos was fired for having taken pictures of interns in a hotel room while wearing only his underwear and a T-shirt. He had been investigated — but not disciplined — months earlier for commenting that a teenage inmate's breasts looked "rode hard and put away wet."
Since November 2014, eight employees have been fired and 14 have resigned or retired amid internal investigations. Some of those departures are not related to the initial abuse allegations, according to the Department of Corrections.
Walker replaced Corrections Secretary Wall with Jon Litscher, who had run the department a dozen years earlier. Litscher promoted Peterson to superintendent, but new people were put in place in the top ranks of the prison and the department's central office.
In response to the problems, Department of Corrections officials installed 60 more surveillance cameras and equipped guards with body cameras. They began holding weekly meetings to review major incidents. They dramatically increased training.
To help combat the staffing shortage, Litscher raised entry-level wages by 80 cents, to $16 an hour. The pay increase was seen as a welcome starting point by staff who had their take-home wages cut as part of Act 10. This year, the state has hired more than 40 new guards at Lincoln Hills.
In November, the prison ended a decades-long practice of having guards dispense medication. Those duties were handed over to nurses after guards accidentally gave inmates the wrong prescription drugs several times.
“The dynamic is 100% better,” Department of Correction spokesman Tristan Cook said of changes that have been adopted in the last year.
But the chief judge of Milwaukee County, Maxine White, said her confidence in how Lincoln Hills is run has yet to be restored. After she visited Lincoln Hills in January, she called the facility inhumane.
"I saw a detention facility," she said in a recent interview, noting state law emphasizes the importance of rehabilitating juvenile delinquents.
"They were in their rooms. Nothing was going on. There was no activity. Nothing. For $300 a day, we were getting housing. But in the juvenile code, that's not the deal."
This month, Walker told Milwaukee County officials he is open to having the state help pay for building a local 36-bed juvenile corrections center to help it limit how many kids it sends to Lincoln Hills.
The idea is still in the early stages, and it's unclear if lawmakers will sign onto the plan.Quiet federal probe
The internal investigation of Lincoln Hills was completed in the spring of 2016, but criminal and civil investigations remain open. The FBI hasn't visited the prison for nearly a year.
“People would be sorely mistaken if they thought we were not continuing this investigation,” said John Vaudreuil, the U.S. attorney for Wisconsin's western district.
The case is taking so long because it is complex, he said. Agents are using a computer program to link incidents mentioned by inmates in hundreds of interviews, he said.
Separately, the U.S. Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division is reviewing whether there was a pattern of civil rights violations at Lincoln Hills.
If the department makes such a finding, the federal government could sue the state and force changes under the watch of a judge — an expensive endeavor that has compelled other states to reform their juvenile justice systems.
Meanwhile, juveniles continue to be sent to Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake. Local officials have few other options for serious offenders.
For judges in Milwaukee County Children's Court, who handle child welfare and juvenile delinquency cases, they face the quandary of sending youth to a place they view as dangerous.
“Day in and day out, my colleagues are asked to remove children from homes, parental homes, that are being investigated for abuse and neglect," said Triggiano. "In the same breath, we are being asked to send kids to a place being investigated for abuse and neglect.”Victim becomes suspect
Soon after Evans' toes were crushed at Lincoln Hills, he attacked an inmate at a Wauwatosa detention center. He was convicted of battery in June.
Evans, who turned 18 in September, has been acting out, sometimes violently, since middle school, court records show. He ran away from group homes, assaulted a teacher and stole a van before he was sent to Lincoln Hills on a theft charge. There, he often was in the segregation unit for fighting.
By this fall, his circumstances appeared to have improved. On Sept. 20, Evans signed the settlement that would provide him $300,000.
Three days later, before he got the settlement money, Evans and two others snatched a woman's car keys from a table at a McDonald's in Milwaukee, ran into the parking lot and stole her Honda Odyssey, prosecutors allege.
Records show Evans is a suspect in four other carjacking and car theft cases from October. Prosecutors will decide soon whether to charge him, said Assistant District Attorney Benjamin Wesson.
Evans is the first former inmate to get a settlement, but he may not be the last. The Walker administration has hired a law firm specifically to handle expected lawsuits against the state from former Lincoln Hills inmates and their families.
John Diedrich of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.
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How we reported this story
For this investigation of Wisconsin's juvenile prisons, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel conducted dozens of interviews and reviewed more than 1,000 pages of documents gathered under the state's open records law.
Those who were interviewed include the parents of juvenile inmates at Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls, current and former guards, corrections officials, prosecutors, public defenders, law enforcement officers and elected officials.
Among the records that were reviewed are prison incident reports; internal investigation reports; transcripts of internal investigators' interviews with staff and inmates; settlement agreements; sheriff department reports; inmate requests for compensation because of injuries; budget reports; court documents; correspondence from inmates; and emails and text messages sent by prison workers and other state officials.
All accounts in this article come from one of these sources and often a combination of sources. For instance, the account of an inmate having his foot smashed in November 2015 is drawn from interviews with those who were there that night or directly familiar with what happened, as well as incident reports, the boy's account as submitted in a notice of claim, and transcripts of interviews conducted by internal investigators.
The Journal Sentinel has not named Lincoln Hills juveniles who have been injured, except in the case of Kenyadi Evans, whose foot was smashed. As an adult, Evans has received a large settlement from state taxpayers and has been charged with a felony.http://www.jsonline.com/story/news/investigations/2016/12/17/crisis-lincoln-hills-juvenile-prison-years-making/95383518/