MADISON, Wis. — A top psychologist at Wisconsin's troubled youth prison was fired for allegedly ignoring the requests of dozens of inmates who asked for help, according to his termination letter from the Department of Corrections. He appealed the firing and the two sides agreed last week to characterize his departure as a resignation.
Dr. D. Jeremy John — who had worked at the Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake prison facility in Irma since 1999 and became psychology program internship director in 2015 — is the second director to lose the job within about a year. His predecessor, Vincent Ramos, was fired in December 2015 after he was accused of making sexual comments on the job and photographing interns in a hotel room while wearing only boxers and a shirt.
Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake, the state's primary youth prison with about 160 inmates, has been plagued by allegations of abuse and disarray. Conditions there are the subject of an FBI investigation; in January the American Civil Liberties Union sued on behalf of current and former inmates who said staff members overused solitary confinement and pepper spray. And in February, a former inmate filed a lawsuit alleging that staff at Copper Lake, which houses female inmates, ignored signs she was suicidal and did nothing to prevent her from trying to hang herself in 2015. She suffered brain damage and will need around-the-clock care for life.
The facility's Superintendent Wendy Peterson fired John in late December for disobedience, negligence and failing to follow agency rules, according to records obtained by The Associated Press after John appealed the firing. From August to November, John failed to follow up with 26 youth inmates who were assigned to him and had asked for psychological help, Peterson wrote. Staff members are supposed to respond to inmates' requests within three days.
"There is no record of these youth being contacted or being seen by you," Peterson wrote in his termination letter, adding that John's actions "could have resulted in irreparable damage to both the youth population and staff."
John declined to comment to AP, but said in documents appealing his firing that the duties of the job were "impossible to complete." Mark Cebulski, an AFSCME union representative for John, told the state the allegations against John were improperly characterized and that John had asked for help.
"Dr. John's overwhelming schedule, buttressed by what we believe to be an impossible amount of time in which to fulfil it — due to being told that comp time and overtime had been severely curtailed, if not simply cancelled — prevented him from giving the youth the time they deserved," Cebulski wrote in an appeal.
In another instance referenced in John's termination letter, the agency says John never followed up with an inmate who had punched a wall and banged his head against a door and whose father had voiced concerns about his anxious state. A school psychologist and John's supervisor asked him via email to see the inmate. John later told the department he believed someone else was seeing the inmate.
Peterson also reprimanded John for taking too long to submit reports to the American Psychological Association necessary to maintain accreditation that allows it to hire psychology interns.
Department of Corrections spokesman Tristan Cook said Wednesday that the agency last year hired psychologist Tracy Johnson for a newly created juvenile mental health director position that oversees all mental health services. He said John's supervisor, chief psychologist Melissa Parrent, replaced him. He said the agency has full confidence in Parrent and Johnson to ensure inmates get the services they need.
State lawmakers on the Assembly Corrections committee toured the facility in March and had varying reactions. Democratic Rep. David Bowen of Milwaukee said at the time that some staff members cried as they told him about being forced to work extra shifts that result in 16-hour days, making it harder for them to do their jobs effectively. But Republican Committee Chair Michael Schraa of Oshkosh said the environment was better than he expected and that he was encouraged by changes being made by Department of Corrections Secretary Jon Litscher.
Follow Cara Lombardo on Twitter at https://twitter.com/CaraRLombardo
Cara Lombardo, The Associated Press