The allegation is horrifying: A 4-foot-7, 110-pound teacher at the Lincoln Hills youth prison attempts to assert control of a classroom beset with some unruly students. She tells one student inmate, pacing in front of her desk, to return to his seat.
“You’re not running this classroom. I am,” the teacher, Pandora Lobacz, recalls the boy saying, shortly before he punched her in the left eye, knocking her unconscious.
A photo of Lobacz’s face after she regained consciousness is on Page A9 of Monday’s Journal Times, and also is shown here. The photo looks even worse in color.
We’re left to conclude that there was no corrections officer inside the classroom, and that such an officer would surely have been able to help Lobacz persuade the student to return to his seat.
Problems at the Lincoln Hills (boys) and Copper Lake (girls) prisons, about 215 miles northwest of Milwaukee, have been developing for years, the Associated Press reported Sunday. 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, the AP reported. In October, 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.
Judge Peterson, we’d urge you to have a look at the photo of Pandora Lobacz’s eye when considering your commitment to ensuring the safety of the staff.
Gov. Scott Walker and prison officials insist that the facility is safe for both guards and inmates. Late last month, 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.
We agree with state Sen. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst, and Rep. Mary Felzkowski, R-Irma, that there are juvenile offenders at Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake who are trying to serve their time and return to civil society. But we also agree with the allegation made by Tiffany and Felzkowski that Judge Peterson’s ruling “has emboldened some youth offenders,” making it unsafe for staff.
Lincoln Hills was put on lockdown Tuesday, as guards search for contraband amid fears of the possibility of a riot.
For the safety of everyone inside those gates, whether inmate or employee, the increases in both the number of guards and improvements in infrastructure and security called for in the state budget are going to be needed sooner rather than later.