Wisconsin prison guards investigated by federal authorities after breaking teen inmate’s arm

The teen was given ibuprofen and left naked in his cell for an hour.

(CREDIT: Pexels, Izhar Khan)
(CREDIT: Pexels, Izhar Khan)

Federal investigators are looking into an incident at a juvenile prison facility in northern Wisconsin, in which two prison guards allegedly broke a 16-year-old inmate’s arm, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported this week. According to the outlet, details of the incident — which took place in March 2014 and is the subject of a civil rights lawsuit — have only recently been made public.

Jacob Bailey, now 20, testified in court last month that he was angry about being sent to the Lincoln Hills School for Boys and had been kicking and hitting his cell door prior to the incident. According to reports, the victim, who had been transferred to the juvenile facility from a treatment center, had also blocked the surveillance camera in his room.

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Bailey testified that guards James Johnson and John Wienandt allegedly told him he would “need [ice] to soothe his wounds” before “charging” his cell, forcing him to his hands and knees, and yanking his arms behind his back. He claimed they told him they would “knock out his teeth” and told him to apologize for covering up the camera.

“I told him, ‘You’re breaking my arm, you’re breaking my arm,’ and he kept pulling it harder,” Bailey recalled. He claimed he told the guards at one point that his arm had been broken, which the guards allegedly ignored. Instead, he said, they demanded he strip off his clothes for a search.

Bailey testified that he was left naked in his cell for an hour.

After the incident, Bailey testified that a nurse stopped by his cell, told him his arm was likely broken, and offered him ibuprofen to numb the pain. A doctor who examined him later confirmed that his forearm had indeed been fractured and put him in a cast, the Journal Sentinel reported.

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After Bailey told his mother Lisa about the incident during a subsequent visit, she attempted to alert the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office, but was met at the station by an official from the juvenile facility, which later claimed in internal reports that the incident was “unremarkable.” The Lincoln County district attorney’s office also declined to prosecute.

Johnson resigned his post in 2015 amid an internal investigation over the incident. Wienandt also resigned following an internal investigation in 2016.

The Journal Sentinel report is the latest to document alleged abuses within the facility, which is at the center of a probe begun by State Attorney General Brad Schimel in 2015. The case was handed over to FBI investigators in 2016.

In December 2016, the Journal Sentinel published a report highlighting widespread issues within both the Lincoln Hills facility and its partner facility, the Copper Lake School for Girls. Alleged injustices included abuse, child neglect, sexual assault, victim and witness intimidation, and record tampering. In one case, a female teen inmate who had been sexually assaulted was allegedly held for hours before being transported to a nearby hospital. In 2014, things had reportedly become so bad that officials in Milwaukee Country asked county circuit judges to avoid sentencing minors to the two juvenile facilities until investigations were complete.

When asked about Bailey’s allegations this week, the Wisconsin Department of Corrections (DOC) — which is in charge of the Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake facilities — told ThinkProgress that it had conducted a “robust internal investigation and held employees accountable for their conduct.”

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“DOC is cooperating with ongoing investigations,” a spokesperson said. The guards involved in Bailey’s case, they explained, were “[not] employed by the Department and the Wisconsin Department of Corrections has made substantial changes to all facets of CLS/LHS operations.”

Those changes so far include a requirement mandating that prison staff notify parents of all youth injuries; a requirement compelling all security staff to wear body cameras; departmental use of force training; wellness checks following physical incidents; and a “Youth Counselor Pre-Service Academy” program meant to ensure “all security staff are trained to Department standards.”

The spokesperson also said the DOC had established a “closer partnership” with the Lincoln Country Sheriff’s Office, an electronic reporting system, and a review of all incidents “with a likelihood of youth injury by Department, Division, and CLS/LHS leadership.”

On Thursday, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker also announced he would close both Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake, signaling a promising — if tentative — step in the right direction, prison reform advocates said.

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“I think the key things that need to happen are a shift in culture and an infusion of resources that looks at juvenile corrections as something different from adult corrections,” Larry Dupuis, legal director for the ACLU of Wisconsin, told WUWM. “The whole punitive model doesn’t work very well with adults but it works even more poorly with children.”