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Gov. Walker appoints new corrections secretary: ‘Cathy Jess is an experienced leader’

MADISON β€” Gov. Scott Walker appointed a new Department of Corrections secretary on Wednesday, the agency’s third leader in less than three years as it struggles to recover from allegations of abuse at Wisconsin’s youth prison.

Walker announced in a news release that DOC Deputy Secretary Cathy Jess will take over the top position from Jon Litscher next month. Jess, a former prison guard who served as warden at Dodge Correctional Institution and the Wisconsin Women’s Correctional System, is the first woman to lead the department.

“Cathy Jess is an experienced leader with a strong background, and we welcome her to this new role,” Walker said in the release. “I also give my deep appreciation and thanks to Jon Litscher for his outstanding work as DOC secretary and for his many years of dedicated service as a state official and educator.”

The news release didn’t say why the 73-year-old Litscher is leaving. Walker spokeswoman Amy Hasenberg said he decided to retire.

The department has been under intense scrutiny since late 2015 when word broke that the state Department of Justice had been investigating allegations of widespread guard-on-prisoner abuse at the youth prison outside Irma. Agency Secretary Ed Wall resigned in February 2016 as news broke that the FBI had taken over the investigation.

Walker turned to Litscher, a former school superintendent who had served as DOC secretary from 1999 to 2003, to replace Wall.

Litscher worked to reform the youth prison, ordering guards to undergo more training and wear body cameras, increasing mental health services for inmates and implementing a regular review of all youth injuries. Litscher said in Walker’s news release that he was proud of the “transformation of juvenile corrections.” But problems at the youth prison persisted during his tenure.

A federal judge in July ordered staff at the prison to reduce their use of pepper spray and cut back on shackling inmates and placing them in solitary confinement. The order stemmed from a class-action lawsuit The American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin and the Juvenile Law Center filed on inmates’ behalf.

Staffers have claimed that the judge’s order emboldened inmates to attack them. In October, five prison workers were hospitalized after a pair of clashes with inmates. That same month, an inmate punched a teacher in the face and knocked her unconscious.

In March, the agency reached an $18.9 million settlement with a former youth inmate who suffered brain damage after she tried to hang herself in her cell in November 2015. Before she hanged herself, the girl activated her cell call light to signal she needed help, but guards didn’t respond for 24 minutes. The guards falsified a log to show they checked on her every 15 minutes.

Four more lawsuits accusing prison staff of abusing inmates are pending. The FBI investigation continues.

Walker signed a bill in March that will close the youth prison by 2021 and borrow $80 million to build new state facilities for the most serious offenders. Counties willing to accommodate the less serious offenders will get some of the funding.

The DOC also is wrestling with a profound shortage of guards. As of this month there were 920 unfilled jobs across the state, a vacancy rate of about 12.5 percent, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau. More than 20 percent of the jobs were open at Waupun Correctional Institution and Redgranite Correctional Institution. More than 17 percent of the jobs were open at four other prisons, including the youth institution.