$19 Million Paid to Family of Teen Left Brain Damaged at Copper Lake School
This blog normally covers the untimely deaths of prison inmates and those wrongfully shot by the police. Those stories are already tragic. Tragic because a human life was snuffed out and tragic because those in jail and police custody don’t have options or choices when it comes to medical treatment. This story is worse, it involves children, children who were strangled by guards, sexually assaulted, pepper sprayed and abused by guards while in the custody of the State of Wisconsin Department of Corrections.
Lincoln Hills School is a juvenile corrections facility located in rural Wisconsin. It opened in 1970. Located on an 800 acre forested tract in northern Wisconsin, the facility looks quite serene from the outside (except for the razor wire fencing) But don’t outside appearances or the word “school” in the facility’s formal name fool you. It a jail and one with a sordid, disturbing history. Now after many decades Lincoln Hills may finally be closed for good.
Discussions to shut down Lincoln Hills began in 2010. That year then Governor Doyle appointed a committee to determine the fate of Wisconsin’s several juvenile justice facilities. (There are two facilities at Lincoln Hills, the Lincoln Hills School which houses males and the smaller Copper Lake School which houses females.)
The Committee was tasked with recommending the “best environment to give youth a chance to turn their lives around and return ready to contribute to our communities.” Unfortunately, the Committee couldn’t agree on anything except to acknowledge that one of the state facilities should be closed to help balance the budget.
Wisconsin got a new governor in 2011. The budget submitted by Governor Scott Walker called for two downstate facilities to close and juveniles from those facilities to be moved to Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake.
Until this point, all the discussions on juvenile corrections in Wisconsin centered on money. The state was trying to balance its books. If there was widespread abuse at any of Wisconsin’s facilities, it was below the radar.
That was soon to change.
Almost as soon as Governor Scott Walker announced that Lincoln Hills would be expanded, a child was sexually assaulted and knocked unconscious by another juvenile. We know today that sexual assaults at both facilities were common. They didn’t get much press, however.
The outcry over that particular assault really got going after it became public that corrections officers waited until the end of a basketball game before transporting the injured youth to a hospital. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that none of the officers faced any discipline.
The revelations of the assault and apparent lack of concern by Lincoln Hills management caused Racine County to declare that it would no longer send offenders to that facility. Milwaukee County, the state’s largest county by population, also threatened to stop sending kids to Lincoln Hills.
A Lincoln Hills psychologist, Dr. Paul Hesse, reportedly told the victim’s case worker, “Dr. (Hesse) chuckled and asked me, 'What did you want them to do, stop the basketball game?'"
The public uproar was enough to get the state and later the FBI involved in investigating conditions at the troubled facility.
In 2014 a state public defender demanded the state start investigating physical and sexual assault claims at Lincoln Hills. A youth counselor from the facility told reporters that he “routinely saw inmate-on-inmate sexual assaults dealt with improperly, with parents and law enforcement often not informed.”
“There were so many sexual assaults up there that I don’t recall them all. It happened so frequently in Douglas Cottage that they called the Douglas Diddlers.”
By then, the FBI’s investigation of civil rights issues had expanded to claims of excessive use of force and child neglect.
With the judges, public officials, public defenders and parents demanding answers, the Department of Corrections belatedly began its own investigation. That soon turned into a criminal investigation by the state Department of Justice.
Less than 2 months later after the state’s investigation began, Lincoln Hills was raided by fifty prosecutors and Department of Justice agents.
Throughout 2015 and 2016, allegations of misconduct continued pouring in. A state psychologist at the facility was heard making crude and inappropriate sexual remarks about a female juvenile at Copper Lake School. Corrections officers destroyed inmate abuse complaints. Workers inappropriately used pepper spray on kids, sexual abuse claims were swept under the rug. And most disturbing, allegations of sexual assaults and abuse by guards on juvenile inmates.
A Lincoln County Circuit Court judge leading a “John Doe” investigation reported there was reason to believe that sexual assaults, child abuse, intimidation of victims and witnesses, abuse of prisoners, tampering with public records, official misconduct and bodily assaults including by suffocation and strangulation were taking place at Lincoln Hills.
In January 2017, the ACLU filed a lawsuit over conditions at Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake.
According to the lawsuit, kids are routinely put in solitary confinement. At Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake, that apparently means being put in a small cell 7 foot by 10 foot with a solid metal door and furniture consisting of a metal toilet, sink and mattress on the floor. No desk, no chair and the light in the cell is kept on 24 hours a day making sleep difficult.
One inmate said he was confined in solitary for seven and a one half months. The kids in solitary agree that they rarely got more than one hour of school per day and routinely were denied group therapy sessions.
On July 10, 2017, a U.S. District Court Judge ordered Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake to not hold kids in solitary for more than 7 days and to permit those kids in solitary to participate in classes and therapy sessions.
So what happens now? The state will build new facilities. Hopefully, something will be learned from the horrible lessons at Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake.
We think that Wisconsin got away with so much for so long because the state’s two biggest juvenile “secure detention facilities” were far from any population center. That means out-of-sight, out-of-mind.
Kids that were sexually assaulted by guards or other inmates have rights. Ditto for kids that receive inadequate medical care.
Crime is here to stay. And sometimes violent crimes are committed by kids. There will always be a need to for secure detention facilities. But physically and mentally abusing kids and sweeping the problems under the carpet is not the “best environment to give youth a chance to turn their lives around and return ready to contribute to our communities” to quote Governor Doyle’s juvenile justice committee.
Wisconsin has a high 63% recidivism rate. That means most kids that get released from Lincoln Hills are back in custody within 3 years. Whatever we are doing now, it doesn’t work!
Call for Victims of Prison and Secure Detention Facility Abuse
If you were sexually assaulted in a juvenile detention facility or group home or suffered catastrophic bodily injuries in such a facility, contact us immediately.
No matter how old or young you are, every person in the United States possesses certain inalienable rights and that includes the right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment and the right to adequate medical treatment while incarcerated.
The time to file claims against state entities is extremely limited. In some states, a victim only has a few months to make a claim.
If Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake are examples of how Wisconsin operates its juvenile justice system maybe it is time to use the civil justice system to insure these abusive practices never occur again.
Largest Civil Recovery for Brain Damaged Teen at Copper Lake School
In March 2018, the Wisconsin Department of Corrections agreed to pay $18.9 million to a former inmate at Copper Lake School. The victim, a then teen girl, suffered severe brain damage after a failed suicide attempt.
Syndi Briggs was 16 when she was sent to Copper Lake. Her crime? Stealing booze from a liquor store. Feeling suicidal, she pressed her emergency call button in her cell. No one responded.
From what investigators can piece together, she waited for approximately 15 minutes for help. When no one showed up, she then managed to hang herself with a t-shirt.
She had no pulse when guards finally did show up. They revived her but she remained in a coma for months. Today she is severely brain damaged, confined to a wheelchair and has the cognitive abilities of a young child.
Had the facility placed her on suicide watch – she had told them she was depressed and had no reason to live – or promptly responded to her emergency call button, she probably would be a young woman enjoying life. The injuries here were 100% preventable.
If you or a family member are a victim of abuse, violence, or medical neglect in a juvenile secured detention facility or youth home, you have important legal rights. The abuse or injuries you suffered may entitle you to compensation for violations of your civil rights. We file federal civil rights lawsuits throughout the United States.
Please read our prison inmate abuse and juvenile sexual assault information pages.
Call 866.836.4684 to connect with our legal and investigative team to learn your rights. No-cost. Always Confidential.