MADISON, Wis. — Gov. Scott Walker’s refusal to visit Wisconsin’s juvenile prisons, which are under investigation and the target of multiple lawsuits, will be an issue in his re-election, with Democratic challengers saying it epitomizes the Republican’s failed leadership.
Walker has never visited the Lincoln Hills or Copper Lake prisons in Irma, about 30 miles north of Wausau. The move allows him to distance himself from troubles at the prison, while defending his decision not to go by saying he has faith in Department of Corrections leaders to improve conditions.
A federal court ordered the department in July to reduce the use of certain disciplinary methods at the prisons, including solitary confinement, pepper spray and shackles. Prison workers have said that conditions have worsened since that order was issued. One violent clash with inmates in October sent five workers to the hospital and a teacher was knocked out by a juvenile two weeks earlier.
A federal probe into alleged criminal mistreatment of the inmates is in its third year.
Walker’s Corrections Department has instituted a series of changes at the prisons. Those include replacing the superintendent, increasing staff training, installing more surveillance cameras, equipping guards with body cameras, providing incentives to encourage good behavior among the youth and increasing programming for inmates.
Walker told The Associated Press recently that it’s his faith in those leading the department that makes him comfortable with never having seen firsthand what’s happening at Lincoln Hills. He also said he won’t go there before his second term ends in 14 months.
Walker said Corrections Secretary Jon Litscher has insisted the prisons are safe for workers and inmates. He said Litscher has been given “the tools and the authority to make changes in (the juvenile justice) system, whether there or anywhere else where they’re appropriate, to ensure the safety and security of the staff as well as offenders.”
“That’s the difference,” Walker said. “Democrats focus on things that, I guess, are for show as opposed to results.”
Democrats and some Lincoln Hills staff who have called on Walker to visit view his decision to stay away as a fundamental flaw in his ability to effectively govern the state.
Lincoln Hills epitomizes Walker’s failed leadership, said Tony Evers, the state superintendent of schools.
“We have a serious crisis on our hands and instead of addressing it, Walker is going out of his way to avoid taking responsibility,” Evers said. “A real leader wouldn’t leave this problem to his underlings to solve.”
Democratic state Rep. Dana Wachs promised that if elected he would visit personally with the workers there.
Andy Gronik, a Milwaukee businessman and Democratic candidate, said “the best solutions come from walking the factory floor and speaking to the people who deal with the problems every day.”
“We need a leader who isn’t afraid to drop into tough situations and find innovative solutions for both the kids at the facility and the correctional officers entrusted with their care,” Gronik said.
One Lincoln Hills teacher who was punched and knocked out by an inmate, Pandora Lobacz, has requested a meeting with Walker but he’s refused.
“Governor Walker and Secretary Litscher are committed to ensuring the safety and well-being of all staff at Lincoln Hills, and welcome any insight that she may have,” John D. Tripoli, an attorney for the Corrections Department, wrote to Lobacz’s brother Aaron Rollins in an email Wednesday, encouraging her to communicate with the head of juvenile corrections.