KEEP THE KIDS CLOSE: Diverting youth offenders from Lincoln Hills

A 17-year-old inmate at Lincoln Hills Correctional facility kneeled on the floor with his ankles crossed and his hands behind his head. The position was meant to keep staff safe while they delivered a meal to the boy, known as ACL (because he’s a juvenile, City Pages is not disclosing his real name).

The tactic didn’t work. As soon as one of two staffers entered the room, ACL attacked, hitting him as many as 15 times, according to the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office’s report. Another intervening staffer also was injured in attempts to subdue him.

Staff say ACL is a troublemaker, accounting for 90% of the school’s paperwork that day. But ACL is far from being the school’s biggest problem.

Allegations of staff abuse on juvenile inmates have led to an investigation by the FBI and Wisconsin Department of Justice at what is now the state’s only state juvenile correction facility. The controversy also led to the resignation of DOC Secretary Ed Wall; Lincoln Hills superintendent John Ourada abruptly resigned in December, shortly after investigators raided the facility.

Violence runs both ways at Lincoln Hills and its sister facility, Copper Lake School for Girls, both located about 12 miles north of Merrill, near Irma: Staff, fewer in numbers than ever, are routinely attacked by inmates—some of the most troubled youth in the state. And some youth attack each other, reports show. The Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office sends deputies to investigate at the facility so often—nearly daily—it has hired a transcription service to keep up with the paperwork.

When investigators asked ACL about the incident, he told them staff disrespected him, and that he “will take the first steps to attack someone first so he is not the one getting hurt first,” according to the incident report.

The incident represents what correction staff at Lincoln Hills experience on a daily basis, and what kind of environment a youth sent there is entering. In April, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that nearly one in five positions were vacant at the youth prison. Staff making up the difference during such a shortage often must work back-to-back shifts, sometimes unexpectedly.

The episode also highlights why Marathon County does its best to keep its juvenile offenders close to home. Not a single local youth currently is incarcerated at Lincoln Hills, and very few have been sent there in the past few decades.

Marathon County’s solution is called MC180, and it’s one of a handful like it in the state. But other counties are starting to take notice.

The program creates an alternative road between the county’s secure juvenile detention facility (for low-level offenders) and the hardcore juvenile prison up north. It’s meant to steer kids, who are close to going to Lincoln Hills/Copper Lake, a better way. And crucially, MC180 keeps those juveniles close to family, familiar support professionals, and with juveniles of similar temperament. Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake are reserved for the most problematic youth in the state.

Marathon County’s program works because it’s a combination of carrot and stick: Juveniles earn increasing privileges as they complete steps of the program, but further incarceration and the prospect of Lincoln Hills looms in the background.

Intensive treatment, structure

What would it take for a juvenile to be sent to Lincoln Hills? Quite a bit, says Marathon County Social Services Director Becky Bogen-Marek. But locally, intense intervention aims to keep juveniles within the community first.

That might mean housing them at the county’s juvenile secure detention facility, near Sunnyvale Park on the city’s west side, or in the shelter program. It also could mean a referral to MC180, he county’s diversion program for youth offenders. The program is a partnership between the Wausau School District and Marathon County Social Services to help treat troubled kids before their behavior becomes egregious enough to land them in the state correctional facility.

Started in 2013, MC180 is one of only a half-dozen or so like it in the state (Eau Claire and La Crosse have similar programs, for instance.) One reason more communities don’t have something similar is because it requires a secure juvenile detention facility, which only about a dozen counties in the state have, says Paul Mergendahl, who runs the juvenile facility in Wausau.

“Marathon County has a lot of resources to initially address kids who might exhibit behavior that could lead to Lincoln Hills or Copper Lake,” Mergendahl says.

MC180 youth receive therapeutic treatment depending on their needs, Mergendahl says. That could mean mental health treatment, alcohol and other drug counseling or family counseling.

“It’s not an alternative to a state correction facility,” Mergendahl says. “It’s a more of a stop gap between Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake, and residential treatment.”

Juvenile Justice Paul Mergendahl

City Pages

Juvenile Justice Paul Mergendahl

Marathon County has a lot of resources, including the intensive MC180 program, to initially address kids who might exhibit behavior that could lead to Lincoln Hills or Copper Lake, says Paul Mergendahl, who runs the county’s juvenile detention facility near Sunnyvale Park in Wausau.

The typical child admitted to the MC180 program committed an offense that would land an adult in jail for at least six months, Mergendahl says. To enter the program, a judge first decides whether it’s an option. Mergendahl then confers with the school district and social services to determine whether the juvenile is eligible.

Since the program’s inception three years ago, 11 youth have been have been placed in the program. In 2015 its cost for contracted therapists and counselors was $44,118 in 2014,  $20,563 in 2015, and $35,879 as of May 31 this year.

Marathon County prosecutor Lesli Pluster says only a handful of youth have been sent to Lincoln Hills in the past several years, and MC180 is a major reason. “In juvenile cases, our primary goal is to make sure the behavior doesn’t happen again and provide the tools for them to make better choices.”

Carrots and sticks

The Marathon County Youth Detention Facility could hardly be described as inviting, but its setting is, tucked away near 72nd Avenue, a short walk from Sunnyvale Park. A passerby would hardly notice the red brick building hidden among the trees, its parking lot with few cars, and a basketball hoop on the grounds.

At any given time at the facility, there might be two or three youth wearing black polo shirts, different from the ordinary detention garb that sports a yellow stripe.

Those youth in polo shirts are in the MC180 program, and they generally wear the uniform with some pride, says social worker Kelly Posekany, who is assigned exclusively to the program. The casual, nondescript shirts help the MC180 kids feel normalized, Posekany says.

Juvenile Justice Kelly Posekany

Juvenile Justice Kelly Posekany

MC180 youth go through counseling and therapy. They might be set up with addiction services, or take sessions in pro-social behavior, says social worker Kelly Posekany. “It’s very specific to the juvenile.”

It’s a small privilege in the grand scheme, but small privileges seem to help the program work. MC180 youth start in a very restrictive environment, but gradually earn increasing trust and freedom. “We call it 180 because it’s a chance to turn your life around,” Posekany says.

After an initial evaluation and drug screening, MC180 youth go through extensive, personalized counseling and therapy. They might be set up with addiction services, or take sessions in pro-social behavior, Posekany says. “It’s very specific to the juvenile.”

Progress reports are given daily, and youth earn tokens for good behavior, which allow them to purchase snacks or a movie at the canteen, for instance. They get some face-to-face visitation time with parents.

As the MC180 youth work their way into the next phase of the program, they earn time to visit their families outside the facility. This time is restricted and closely monitored with GPS devices. Any slip-up—sneaking out of the house, for example—might move a person back on the privilege list.

The program is set up for 180 days, but most youths move through more quickly. No one has taken the full 180 days to graduate. One went 179 days; some have finished in as quickly as 125 days.

How do they do when they’re out? Not perfectly, Posekany says, but none have committed the kind of offenses that first landed them in trouble. That’s an important distinction: These kids have committed offenses numerous and serious enough to be on a trajectory to Lincoln Hills. Yet most post-MC180 violations are simply for breaking rules, such as going where they’re not supposed to—things an ordinary youth wouldn’t get in trouble for, Posekany says.

Keeping kids, family and support close

It all boils down to keeping the youth close to home, says Dawn Perez, Marathon County Child Welfare Manager. “It’s cost effective, it keeps them in the community in the least restrictive environment,” Perez says.

Youth in the program aren’t experiencing their first go-around with the law, Posekany explains. By the point they’ve reached the level of MC180, they’ve been “stacking up referrals,” running away from home, committing crimes. They’ve reached a stage where there’s real concern they could end up in Lincoln Hills.

MC180 provides the best of both worlds, social workers say. “We want to keep them close to here, close to the people who are going to work with them,” Posekany says.

That long-term connection among social workers, therapists and family is key to the program’s success, Posekany says. Conversely, “We’ve seen kids removed from the community. They’ll do good for a time period then they come back and it’s like they’re starting over.”

The cost of failure

For many of the youth in the MC180 program, the next step in their juvenile criminal careers would be Lincoln Hills. Local professionals who work with juveniles would rather see them treated here than be mingled with a large population of youth who have committed crimes serious enough to be felonies if they were adult.

And the current investigations of misconduct and violence at Lincoln Hills/Copper Lake bring to light just how rough a place that institution is.

According to data provided to City Pages via an open records request, Lincoln County deputies responded to 11 complaints of staff abusing inmates in 2013; there were 13 such complaints in 2014, and 14 in 2015.

Lincoln County Sheriff Jeff Jaeger says some of those allegations represent inmates retaliating for perceived wrongs, such as punishments or revoking privileges.

“I have friends who worked up there their entire career and they’re afraid,” Jaeger says. “They’re afraid of assault, they’re afraid of Monday morning quarterbacking, they’re afraid they’ll be terminated for doing something they thought was the right. That’s a tough way to work.”

Jaeger says deputies are called to the school on a near-daily basis for reported violence perpetrated both by the youth and staff. Many inmates accusations against staff who are restraining them turn out to be unfounded, Jaeger says.

None of those complaints of excessive force by staff have led to prosecution at the county level. On the other hand, Lincoln County District Attorney Don Dunphy says he has prosecuted hundreds of cases of inmates attacking staff or other inmates during his time as DA. “These cases tend to have clear evidence and witnesses who are willing to testify,” Dunphy says.

Of the occasional excessive force allegations against staff, Dunphy says this: These are young inmates who have committed multiple, serious offenses. While injuries could happen when an inmate must be subdued, Dunphy says he never saw anything that constituted excessive force.

Still, it’s easy to see how the environment at Lincoln Hills contrasts sharply against a program like MC180.

There has to be a better way, says Nate Bowey about Lincoln Hills. He served time there in the late 90s, and now leads a Facebook group for former inmates to share their stories. Now living in Portland, Bowey says it’s a damaging environment, even for one trying to follow the rules. Pepper spray is a common control mechanism, Bowey says, and even though he says it was never used on him directly, anytime someone nearby was sprayed, he’d be left with burning eyes and lungs struggling for air. “It was like you were wheezing, trying to get your breath,” Bowey says.

Bowey later entered a camp program to help troubled youth. Being out in nature, with structure and yet some freedom, helped straighten his life out, Bowey says.

Today, life is much different for Bowey. He attends a university in Portland, Ore., and is married with a child. He looks back at that alternative program as the path to a better life and a productive member of society.

Marathon County leaders count on MC180 having a similar effect on local teens who have lost their way. Lincoln Hills might serve as a scary reminder of what can happen if a youth goes down the wrong path, but local juvenile justice officials would rather keep them close, where they’re near a support network that can better steer them down the right road.