Excerpts from recent Wisconsin editorials
The Journal Times of Racine, March 26
Massive settlement underscores need for youth prison reform
Anyone needing further proof of the need to reform Wisconsin’s juvenile corrections system was given 18.9 million reasons on Tuesday.
A suicidal girl who called for guards’ help but was left hanging in her cell at the state’s youth prison long enough to suffer permanent, severe brain damage will receive $18.9 million as part of a settlement with the Wisconsin Department of Corrections, the Wisconsin State Journal reported Wednesday.
The settlement with former inmate Sydni Briggs of Janesville was reached Tuesday, the same day lawmakers in the state Senate voted to close the long-troubled Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls in Irma in three years.
Briggs’ attorney said it will be used to pay for medical care for the rest of Briggs’ life. The settlement will be put in a trust that will go toward funding medical care for Briggs, who is no longer considered employable and expected to live for at least six decades.
“She is in a wheelchair, living in an adult family home, and she will require ongoing care for the rest of her life at a cost of millions of dollars,” Eric Haag, Briggs’ attorney, said.
State taxpayers will pay $4 million of the settled amount and the rest will come from insurers.
Briggs was 16 and an inmate in Copper Lake’s Ida B. Wells housing unit on Nov. 9, 2015, when she ripped up a pink T-shirt and secured it to a hinge on a door in her cell and attempted to hang herself, according to DOC incident reports.
She suffered from depression, anxiety and had harmed herself several times while at the youth prison. Her attempt to kill herself came 20 minutes after she activated a call light seeking help from staff, who had instructed her to call for help whenever she felt the urge to harm herself, according to Briggs’ attorneys. She was likely hanging between 2 and 5 minutes.
Though guards were supposed to check on inmates every 15 minutes, they did not check on Briggs for 42 minutes and did not respond to the call light Briggs activated before she attempted suicide for 23 minutes, according to a review conducted after Briggs and her guardian filed a lawsuit in 2017.
Briggs’ attorneys found evidence that showed guards falsified initials on a log that required staff to record when they had completed mandatory 15-minute hall checks. Moreover, video footage showed multiple guards “failing to respond to the call light despite ample opportunity to do so,” according to Briggs’ attorneys.
“The (guards) alleged that they were unaware that the light was on despite the fact that the light was easily seen from numerous locations where staff were present,” her attorneys said. “Finally, after nearly 24 minutes, one of the (guards) responded and found Miss Briggs hanging from her door hinge, with no respirations and no pulse. She had torn apart her T-shirt and used it as a ligature. Her room had a camera in it which was visible at all times to counselors in the staff booth.”
Briggs’ suicide attempt came one month before state and federal investigators descended on the prison to review allegations of inmate abuse, destruction of public records, sexual assault and child neglect, among other crimes.
Since the raid on the youth prison, nearly all the DOC staff charged with overseeing juvenile corrections in Wisconsin have resigned or been fired. A federal investigation into the myriad allegations continues, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office said last week.
The state also gave $300,000 to another former inmate in 2016 to settle a lawsuit he filed after his toes were severely injured after a prison guard slammed a door on his foot. And several other federal lawsuits alleging abuse from staff at the prison are ongoing, including a class-action suit that prompted a federal judge to order changes in DOC’s use of solitary confinement, mechanical restraints and pepper spray on teen inmates.
The youth prison overhaul bill passed the Senate unanimously on Tuesday, 32-0. That bill would shutter and replace Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake, both in Irma, with new, smaller facilities for juvenile offenders around the state, consistent with a proposal Gov. Scott Walker made in January.
Moving to a more regional juvenile system isn’t a cure-all. Hard work by dedicated people will be required to make the system into one that actually reforms juvenile offenders, one that puts them back on the path to becoming productive citizens.
But Wisconsin’s juvenile corrections system is quite obviously broken. It must be fixed to ensure that no more juvenile inmates end up like Sydni Briggs.
La Crosse Tribune, March 26
Thanks to students who watch our riverfront
There’s a group of young volunteers who have exceeded expectation and smashed stereotypes for more than a decade in La Crosse — all while keeping others safe and keeping a low profile. They’ve also worked collaboratively and taken leadership — all the while standing in some frigid weather.
That may not fit what you think of college-age students these days, and that’s both unfortunate and unfair.
Regardless, that’s why it’s important to point out the success story of Operation: River Watch in La Crosse.
The program was started in 2006 after a series of drownings in the Mississippi River off Riverside Park.
Each death was linked to excessive alcohol use, often walking from downtown before ending up in the river.
It was an unsettling time for our community — and it certainly didn’t help our reputation.
But what if someone were standing in the park who could keep watch? What if someone could turn an inebriated person back from the river and headed toward safety?
That’s how Operation: River Watch got started.
Students from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, Viterbo University and Western Technical College helped organize and recruit volunteers to keep watch along the river on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights.
Of course, after a series of river drownings, it was easy to recruit student volunteers — many of whom knew victims.
But 2006 was a long time ago — and, thankfully, our community has healed a great deal from those awful deaths.
But that’s not merely by accident.
Each year, at least 700 students from the three campuses volunteer in three-hour shifts to patrol the riverfront. There could be as few as two students on patrol or, during Oktoberfest, there could be up to 75.
It’s interesting to note students turned around 1,200 people the first year of operation. So far this school year, the number is 354, organizers report.
Most of the people who are confronted respectfully leave the park. In fact, organizers say they’ve only had to call police to intervene with a total of 50 people during the past 12 years.
Maybe the best part is that the initiative has been led, sustained and staffed by students from all three campuses.
It has taken a lot of hard work, organization and passion.
The duty is dark, chilly and hardly glamorous.
The group held a commemorative event last week, and their dedication is truly worth celebrating.
We’re a safer community because of these student volunteers.
They deserve our thanks.
The Daily Reporter, Milwaukee, March 23
Foxconn bidding process should be transparent
In directing contractors to sign up at wisconnvalley.wi.gov to learn of Foxconn bidding opportunities, state officials were taking a step in the right direction.
It’s not enough, though.
The officials overseeing this historic project also have an obligation to tell the public who is winning this work, and why.
Lest we forget, let’s take a moment to remind ourselves once more of the extraordinary subsidies Foxconn Technology Group is in line to receive in return for building a $10 billion factory in southeast Wisconsin.
From state government alone, it’s as much as $3 billion. Then there are the hundreds of millions in local-government incentives and state expenditures on road projects connected to Foxconn’s plans. A recent analysis by the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau found that the cost of such additional assistance could easily run to $1.5 billion.
With so much taxpayer money on the table, few would argue that the Foxconn factory should be treated like an ordinary private construction project. The only question is: Just how public should information pertaining to the project be?
The state, M+W Gilbane and Foxconn are on the right track by putting Foxconn contracts out to bid. But that doesn’t go far enough. They should also take steps to ensure the awarding process is transparent.
The public, for starters, should be able to learn which subcontractors won which Foxconn-related jobs. More than that, though, they are owed some sort of explanation of why one particular contractor was picked over its rivals.
So far, the state and Foxconn have been mostly mum. There has been little said, for instance, to explain why a joint venture formed between Gilbane Building Co. and M+W Group was picked.
The statements that have been released have mostly been acknowledgements of the obvious — that both Gilbane and M+W are both big companies with a history of delivering unwieldy, complex projects.
Granted, Gilbane is probably one of the very few companies out there that are equipped to handle what is likely to be the biggest construction project in Wisconsin’s history. But did any Wisconsin-based companies try to be the big contractor on this job? And, if so, why were they passed over?
But even if the choice of the big contractors was more or less foreordained, questions about who is winning work and why will abound once subcontracts start to be awarded.
State officials, after all, should remember that taxpayers don’t simply expect Wisconsinites to work in Foxconn’s factory following its completion. They also expect Wisconsin construction employers and employees to help build it.
With that in mind, those in charge of the Foxconn project should make it a point to provide answers to a few basic questions.
For instance: What are the exact criteria being used to select subcontractors for the Foxconn project? Are Wisconsin companies being favored in some way over out-of-state rivals? What about companies that are owned by women, minorities and service-disabled veterans? And will contractors seeking to work on the Foxconn factory first have to sign onto a project-labor agreement, even if they are nonunion companies?
Since this a private project, the state, M+W Gilbane and Foxconn are under no obligation to release any of this information.
But it’s hardly a secret that Gov. Scott Walker has had a tough sell on his hands with his proposal to provide one of the wealthiest technology companies in the world with up to $3 billion worth of subsidies. Taking steps to show that Wisconsin companies have benefited from the project — and have been treated fair while trying to win the work — would go a long way toward winning over the skeptics.