Gov. Tony Evers’ administration agreed Thursday to pay nearly $5 million to three former inmates at Wisconsin’s juvenile prison complex—bringing the state’s total legal bills for problems there to more than $25 million.
The settlements are aimed at resolving allegations that guards broke a boy’s arm, rammed a girl’s head into a wall and punished another girl after a suicide attempt.
The settlements wrap up some of the last of the lawsuits over Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls, which have been mired in litigation and investigations for years.
A criminal probe of the facilities ended in April without charges after four years. Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake are scheduled to close in 2021, though Evers has said he might need more time to transfer the teens held there to regional facilities that have yet to be built.
The settlements were announced just hours before the state Assembly passed a bill that would delay the closure of Lincoln Hills by six months, until July 2021.
Under the settlements, the state would pay $1.95 million to Laera Reed, $1.95 million to Paige Ray-Cluney and $875,000 to Jacob Bailey. Those payments total $4.78 million.
John Sandy, an attorney for Reed and Ray-Cluney, said in a statement that the pair were held in isolation for 23 hours a day for weeks at a time in urine-stained cells.
“They had little to no educational instruction or human interaction,” his statement said. “Their severe isolation caused (post-traumatic stress disorder), depression and led to numerous suicide attempts. They lost all hope. Today is, in part, a reclamation of hope.”
The two are from Iowa and were held at Copper Lake under an agreement between the two states. They sued in 2017.
Reed was held at Copper Lake from July 2015 to April 2016, beginning when she was 16.
She was found unresponsive in her cell in November 2015 after she tried to kill herself. When guards intervened, she asked to be left to die and resisted their attempts to restrain her, according to the lawsuit.
They placed her back in her cell, shut her door and extended her time in isolation for acting out, the lawsuit said.
Later, she tried to hurt herself by sticking her head under the low metal frame of a cot. Guard Kyle Hoff stood on the frame, tightening the pressure on her neck, she said. She also accused Hoff of slamming her head against a wall.
Hoff was given a five-day suspension for his treatment of that inmate and another one, but officials at the prison later downgraded his punishment to a written reprimand.
Ray-Cluney, who was also 16 at the start of her stay, was held at Copper Lake from March 2015 to February 2016. She said she spent at least four weeks in solitary confinement in 2015 and alleged she was not provided tampons or other feminine hygiene products while held in confinement.
She said four guards carried her face down into a solitary confinement cell and rammed her head into a wall multiple times.
Reed and Ray-Cluney also have sued Iowa officials over what happened to them because they say they did not do enough to monitor conditions at Copper Lake. Thursday’s settlement does not include the Iowa officials.
Bailey was sent to Lincoln Hills in 2014 at age 16. Angry that he was there, he kicked and banged on his door. Guards told him to stop and said he would soon need ice to soothe his wounds, he said.
The guards charged into his room, brought him to his hands and knees and twisted his arms behind his back. They called him a “little bitch” when he cried, he said.
Guards ignored his claim that his arm was broken and told him to strip for a search, he said. Taking off his clothes was painful because of the arm injury, he said.
They left him naked in his cell for hours. When a nurse visited him, she told him his arm was probably broken and gave him ibuprofen. More than a week later, he saw a doctor in nearby Merrill who determined his arm was fractured above the wrist and put him in a cast.
No one at the prison documented the incident until a week after it happened when the security director at the time, Bruce Sunde, told his staff to write reports because Bailey alleged excessive force had been used.
Sunde and others later conducted a use-of-force review and labeled the incident “unremarkable.”
In an interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel last year, Bailey’s mother, Lisa Bailey, said she believed Bailey’s treatment at Lincoln Hills contributed to him staying in trouble in recent years and winding up in an adult prison for car theft and drug delivery.
“He learned a lot from that place,” Lisa Bailey said. “A lot of bad stuff.”
Prosecutors in 2017 sent letters to former guards James Johnson and John Wienandt telling them they were targets of a federal probe over their treatment of Bailey. But prosecutors more than a year later decided not to charge them or anyone else.
In Bailey’s lawsuit, Johnson and Wienandt declined to answer questions under oath, citing their Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate themselves.
Thursday’s settlements come after high-profile agreements to resolve other cases. In one, the state agreed to pay $18.9 million to a Janesville girl who was severely brain damaged after a suicide attempt. She had asked guards for assistance before harming herself, but they put off responding.
In another case, the state paid $300,000 to a boy who had to have parts of his toes amputated after a guard slammed a metal door on his foot.
In addition, the state has been paying the Milwaukee law firm of Crivello Carlson to defend it in court. In all, the settlements and legal bills have topped $25 million.
Thursday’s settlements end the most significant remaining lawsuits over Lincoln Hills, but the facility remains under court supervision as part of a class-action settlement with inmates reached last year.
Under that deal, the state agreed to reduce the use of pepper spray, handcuffs and solitary confinement.
An independent expert is monitoring conditions there as part of the settlement. Her most recent report on the prison complex found the state had made progress but was not in full compliance with the settlement.
The smell coming from lagoons at Birds Eye’s town of Darien vegetable processing plant has prompted complaints for years, but it is improving, a company representative says.
Kip Guyon, senior director of operations at Birds Eye, told the Walworth County Zoning Agency on Thursday that the lagoons’ water quality has improved dramatically since July 2018, and complaints from neighbors have decreased.
Michael Cotter, director of the Walworth County Land Use and Resource Management Department, said one complaint from a town resident was recorded in September, October and April, and two were recorded in June.
The agency last discussed the odor issue in September. Members Thursday decided to revisit those discussions in June 2020, when they have three choices: proceed with revoking Birds Eye’s conditional-use permit, end discussions entirely or continue monitoring the smell.
Much of the conversation has centered on aerators in two lagoons that contain factory wastewater. The water is used to irrigate nearby fields, and Birds Eye representatives have said the smell is more pungent during irrigation.
Guyon told the committee the odor is caused by a breakdown of organic compounds.
The company installed aerators in the west lagoon in 2016 and added an air flotation system in 2017.
In 2018, the company installed aerators in the north lagoon and implemented a water-use reduction system this year, Guyon said.
He told the committee the company received more than 40 complaints about the smell in June 2018. It received fewer than five this month, according to his slide presentation.
Guyon said the liner in the west lagoon recently started leaking and the aerators were temporarily removed. The company hired a diver to swim to the bottom of the lagoon and temporarily fix the liner while the aerators were outside the water, he said.
Most of the aerators were reinstalled June 18. Additional work to permanently fix the liner will occur this fall, Guyon said.
He said Birds Eye is looking for ways to improve its wastewater handling system, including:
Jim VanDreser, a citizen committee member, said he lives in the town of Walworth and works in the village of Darien. He praised Birds Eye for its efforts.
“I think the efforts they have made have been very successful … maybe a faint odor,” VanDreser said. “I think you’ve done a great job so far.”
Thursday’s discussion comes as the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources considers renewing the company’s five-year permit to irrigate fields with wastewater.
Complaints about the smell are not part of the permitting process, a DNR representative told The Gazette earlier this month.
Birds Eye has “implemented proactive measures to mitigate odors” in the lagoons, according to the DNR’s wastewater permit fact sheet. The company has installed 23 surface aerators and provided supplemental oxygen for bacteria to consume, which has allayed the smell, the DNR noted.
As part of the permit renewal process, residents can submit public comments to the state through Friday.
Mercyhealth is using billboards.
The Salvation Army is issuing press releases.
At Rotary Botanical Gardens, volunteer coordinator Laura Peterson is busy brainstorming with her colleagues inside and outside of her business.
All three nonprofits are looking for ways to attract more volunteers to their organizations in a time when people are working longer, families are busier and jobs are more plentiful.
Rotary Botanical Gardens, which was built on donations and volunteer labor, has seen its volunteer pool shrink.
Peterson doesn’t want to take anything away from longtime volunteers who created the garden.
“The people that built this garden and volunteered all those hours of work are tremendous,” Peterson said.
But Rotary simply needs more help.
“The volunteer hours we record on an annual basis are down,” Peterson said. “I think we used to record about 17,000 hours. Now we’re down to about 13,000.”
The gardens needs people to weed, plant, work special events, staff educational events and perform a variety of other tasks.
At the Salvation Army, Major Tom McDowell finds himself delivering school lunches in Beloit. It’s a task that’s usually done by volunteers, and it takes McDowell away from his other duties in the office, said Patrice Gabower, Salvation Army volunteer and event coordinator.
Gabower said her organization also needs volunteers to help with noon meal prep, serving and cleanup; picking up donations on weekday mornings; staffing the food pantry in Janesville or Beloit; clerical and cleaning work in the Beloit office; and other tasks.
Gabower and Peterson think a variety of factors are contributing to the volunteer shortage.
Some people are working past the typical retirement age either because of need or because they enjoy their jobs.
“People are certainly staying active longer,” Gabower said. “They might be doing other things—traveling more, playing golf or pickleball.”
All that makes daytime volunteer positions more difficult to fill.
Both Peterson and Gabower noted families’ lives are more packed with activities than ever before. Traveling sports teams and competitive dance events fill weekends. That leaves little time for parents to anything except keep up with life’s basics.
Low unemployment means people who volunteered to help build a resume or because they had the time also reduces the pool of possible candidates, Peterson said.
Finally, volunteer coordinators face the challenge of finding the right recruiting method among billboards, Facebook or other social media, text messaging, churches, service groups, email, radio or newspaper. The choices seem endless.
“It’s a communications crisis,” Peterson said. “There’s so many people with different skills, abilities and preferences.”
Leonard “Len” Bleser
Ronald G. “Ron” Hagen
Theresa “T.C.” Hampton
Erma C. Plantikow