May 20, 2024

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Equality opinion

Gov. Tony Evers signs into law new plan to move teens out of Lincoln Hills youth prison

MADISON – Teenage offenders in Wisconsin will no longer be incarcerated in northern Wisconsin, often hours away from family members, under a new law Gov. Tony Evers signed Friday that will create a new facility in Milwaukee County.

Evers’ action is the second time in four years a Wisconsin governor has moved to stop sending children to a facility in Lincoln County plagued with dangerous conditions for most of its decade of life as the state’s only youth prison.

“For years, legislators have been talking about closing Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake as a juvenile facility while simultaneously delaying and obstructing plans to do so,” Evers said in a statement. “… these kids will be closer to home, their families, and their support networks, so we can set them up for better success both while they are in our care and when they re-enter our communities.”

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A bipartisan group of lawmakers who have pushed to close the facility say they believe this time the $42 million plan will take shape, unlike an effort that began in 2018 under former Gov. Scott Walker and fell apart after Republican lawmakers decided to strip the effort of funding under Evers, a Democratic governor.

The Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls in Irma will remain open as an adult prison once a new facility opens for teenage offenders, which could take years to build. The new law requires the Department of Administration to approve a plan to construct a new facility in Milwaukee County as long as it has a green light from the municipality’s officials.

More: Lincoln Hills juvenile prison was set to close in July 2021. So why are judges still sending children there?

More: Republicans and Democrats are united on closing Lincoln Hills juvenile prison, but not on who should take credit

Department of Corrections spokesman John Beard said last week that “all parties need to act with a sense of urgency, because there are many more steps that need to happen” to carry out the plan, including site approval processes at the local and state level and then approval of construction plans by another round of state officials.

“Some of these steps could take several months of preparation,” Beard said.

The proposed site of the new facility is already facing pushback from residents in the area, similar to the criticism DOC officials received during the first attempt to build replacement youth prisons.

The state DOC has considered the Felmers O. Chaney Correctional Center in Milwaukee as a location for the new teen facility despite opposition from those who argue the current facility plays an important role in helping adults successfully reintegrate into society from prison.

In March, Sen. Lena Taylor, D-Milwaukee, proposed an amendment to the legislation blocking the new facility from being placed there, but it was rejected by Senate Republicans.

On Friday, Republican Sen. Van Wanggaard of Racine said he agrees with Taylor.

“It appears that (Evers) is repeating the same mistake, focusing on the Felmers Chaney Center, which provides critical services for re-entry to society. Felmers Chaney, rightly, also has great opposition,” he said in a statement.

The passage of the latest effort to move teens out of the Lincoln Hills prison comes a full decade after a county judge sounded an alarm in former Gov. Scott Walker’s office over dangerous conditions in the Irma facility.

Sharlen Moore, co-founder of Youth Justice Milwaukee who has pushed state officials to close the facility since 2015, the year state and federal agents raided the prison over abuse allegations, said she’s excited to finally see the facility be closed to teens.

“However, this doesn’t solve our problem when it comes to supporting our most vulnerable young people,” Moore said. “We need to put more resources and funding into prevention versus building expensive and outdated youth prisons.”

Federal investigators first descended on the prison in Lincoln County in December 2015 after an exhausted and fed-up correctional officer shoved an insubordinate young inmate into his cell and slammed the door — smashing the 17-year-old inmate’s foot, causing him to have parts of his toes removed.

Just weeks before that incident, a 16-year-old female inmate calling for help was ignored by prison staff while she hanged herself in her room — resulting in permanent and severe brain damage.

Legal settlements were reached in both cases that cost more than $19 million. State taxpayers had to pay more than $4 million of those settlements, with insurance covering the rest.

As an investigation into alleged abuse unfolded, a class-action lawsuit was filed by dozens of inmates who alleged they had suffered permanent and unconstitutional trauma while serving time in the prison because of the staff’s excessive use of pepper spray, handcuffs, shackles and isolation to manage behavior.

The lawsuit prompted a federal court order vastly reducing such practices and resulted in another $1.2 million in costs to taxpayers. Now, the state is on track to spend at least $42 million to build a new facility.

Sarah Volpenhein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel contributed to this report.

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Contact Molly Beck at molly.beck@jrn.com. Follow her on Twitter at @MollyBeck.

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Evers signs into law plan to move teens out of Lincoln Hills prison