Governor announces plan to move juveniles from troubled youth prison

Lincoln Hills youth prison (file photo)
Lincoln Hills youth prison (file photo)(WBAY)
Published: Jan. 4, 2018 at 12:15 PM CST
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Gov. Scott Walker has announced a plan to reform the state's juvenile corrections system by closing the troubled Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake youth facility in northern Wisconsin and moving juveniles to five smaller, regional facilities across the state.

“By moving from one facility to several facilities across the state, and placing a focus on mental health and trauma-informed care, we believe this plan will improve long-term outcomes for both juveniles and our staff working at these facilities,” Governor Walker said. “Republicans and Democrats alike agree this is the way forward to reform juvenile corrections, and I thank state and local elected officials and interested organizations for partnering with us to develop this plan.”

The plan requires the Department of Corrections and Department of Health Services to include the cost of building the new facilities in their upcoming budgets. It's estimated construction costs would be about $80 million.

Former employees at the prison described a chaotic system in which guards were attacked by inmates. The facility was placed on lock down in October after workers raised concerns about inmates planning a riot.

One incident at the prison in October sent five staff members to the hospital.

The American Civil Liberties Union praised the plan. The ACLU condemned what they deemed unconstitutional practices at Lincoln Hills, including pepper-spraying of inmates and solitary confinement. A federal judge ordered the prison reduce the use of those practices.

“The closing of Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake today is fantastic news,” said Jessica Feierman, associate director of Juvenile Law Center. “This is a huge step forward for Wisconsin. We are relieved that the state is moving away from a model that just doesn’t work -- large youth prisons that violate the Constitution and are dangerous to youth. The task now is to ensure that youth are placed at home or in the most family-like settings possible, and provided with the positive supports and services they deserve.”

Critics say Walker is a "day late and dollar short."

“After years of neglect, and ignoring the many legislative proposals that I introduced to bring relief to juveniles and correctional officers, Governor Walker is just now getting to do his job right in time for another election bid,” said Senator Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee). “As governor, he has failed to visit a single correctional or juvenile facility in his entire tenure. It’s clear where is priorities are, and that this is just another attempt to play politics and get this scandal, recently confirmed by his former Corrections Secretary, off his back.”

Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz (D-Oshkosh) also criticized the move as political.

“Only after his former Corrections Secretary Ed Wall blasted Governor Walker for not taking the problems at Lincoln Hills seriously enough, did the Governor become interested. If the crisis at Lincoln Hills were a priority, we could act today. There is absolutely no reason to put this plan in the next budget," Hintz said. "Democrats have been calling for urgent action on juvenile corrections reform for years. Representative Evan Goyke has recently proposed reforms with bipartisan support that are shockingly similar to what was proposed today. If the Governor is serious about these efforts, let’s take up those bills this month and pass them.”

Other lawmakers like Rep. Amanda Stuck, an Appleton Democrat, also expressed concerns over the timetable.

"I think that the children there and the staff there need action now," Stuck told us Thursday. "There are bills already very similar out there to what he's proposing we could pass now and address the issue now. So I think it's a step in the right direction, but unfortunately he's just taking too long to do it and we could do it now."

However, state Sen. Roger Roth, an Appleton Republican, says the transition needs time to overcome a number of challenges.

"You've got to find five regional facilities around the state, you have to make sure they have the proper security measures that they go through the proper permitting, the proper approval from the local governments so I actually think that 2019 is a pretty expedited time line to see this happen," said Roth.

Sharlen Moore of Youth Justice Milwaukee expressed support for the change. "The regional system is crucial because we feel that young people should be close to home. Families shouldn't have to drive several hours to see their son or their daughter."

Right now the complex houses almost 170 boys and girls.

Lincoln Hills/Copper Lake will be transformed into a medium-security adult correctional facility.


MADISON – Governor Scott Walker today announced a plan to provide a long-term solution for Wisconsin’s juvenile corrections and treatment systems following extensive discussions with state and local officials, the judicial system, and stakeholders. The plan significantly reforms juvenile corrections by moving from a system of one facility to five smaller, regional facilities located across the state and expanding Wisconsin’s internationally recognized juvenile treatment program for offenders with mental health challenges at the Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center (MJTC) in Madison.
“By moving from one facility to several facilities across the state, and placing a focus on mental health and trauma-informed care, we believe this plan will improve long-term outcomes for both juveniles and our staff working at these facilities,” Governor Walker said. “Republicans and Democrats alike agree this is the way forward to reform juvenile corrections, and I thank state and local elected officials and interested organizations for partnering with us to develop this plan.”
Governor Walker’s plan will:
Reform Wisconsin’s juvenile corrections and treatment systems to align with nationally recognized best practices. The plan transforms Wisconsin’s juvenile corrections system from one facility to five smaller, regional facilities located across the state. The plan also expands the state’s internationally recognized juvenile treatment program for youth with mental health needs at the Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center. 
Continue Wisconsin’s focus on enhancing mental health and treatment outcomes in close collaboration with families, courts, and Wisconsin counties. 
Require the DOC to relocate juveniles at Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake Schools (LHS/CLS) to five new Type 1 juvenile correctional facilities and one new juvenile mental health facility. 
o The correctional facilities will each consist of 32 to 36 beds with staffing ratios consistent with requirements in the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) and will be sited regionally based on population density. 
o At least one correctional facility will be located north of a line between Manitowoc and La Crosse. 
Transition the existing facility at LHS/CLS to a medium-security adult correctional facility with the cooperation of Lincoln County. This will maintain and potentially even expand the number of jobs in Lincoln County. The addition of this new adult facility will likely reduce DOC’s utilization of contract beds to house adult male inmates. The new facility will also increase DOC’s treatment capacity for inmates with assessed Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse (AODA) treatment needs. 
Require DOC to make employment opportunities available for LHS/CLS staff at the new adult facility in Lincoln County or one of the new juvenile facilities. 
Require the Department of Health Services (DHS) to expand treatment services at the MJTC, serving more male juveniles as early as fall 2018, and creating a facility at MJTC to treat female juveniles with mental health needs. MJTC is internationally renowned for its treatment program, which was built from the ground up here in Wisconsin. Data shows significantly improved outcomes for juveniles who participated in treatment at MJTC. 
Require DOC and DHS to include the costs of converting and operating these new facilities in their 2019-21 agency budget requests.  Funding will be provided in the Governor’s 2019-21 Executive Budget to construct, purchase, and/or rehabilitate existing facilities to house juvenile inmates. Funding will also be provided to convert LHS/CLS to a medium security adult correctional facility. Construction costs for the new facilities would total roughly $80 million, according to preliminary estimates from the DOC.
The state will begin working with counties and other stakeholders to immediately site the new facilities and plan any other actions needed to ensure a smooth transition. Any programming adjustments will be administratively implemented by DOC in consultation with other state agencies and relevant stakeholders. 
Governor Walker’s plan is receiving bipartisan support:
"We applaud Governor Walker's plan to bring together a collaborative team of Wisconsin leaders to create smaller, secure juvenile facilities strategically located in several regions and communities across the state. Under this approach, we will be able to reduce recidivism, improve public safety and better focus our resources on providing evidence-based and trauma-informed interventions for those youth with serious mental health concerns and high-risk behaviors. The Court looks forward to working with Governor Walker and providing substantial support to this effort."
First Judicial District Chief Judge Maxine A. White 
"Since 2011, Milwaukee County – under the leadership of County Executive Abele - has spearheaded the transformation of Milwaukee County’s approach to youth justice. This work has included increased collaboration among Milwaukee County and state of Wisconsin leadership. The announcement today will help Milwaukee County accelerate the transformation of the youth justice system into one that leads to better public safety outcomes and improved opportunities for youth to lead productive and successful lives. We look forward to working with the Governor on making this transformation a reality in Milwaukee County.”
Office of Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele 
“Governor Walker’s plan supports continued job opportunities in Lincoln County. We look forward to working with the state to ensure an effective transition of Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake Schools from a juvenile facility to a medium-security adult facility.”
Lincoln County Board of Supervisors Chair Robert Lee 
“We are pleased with Governor Walker’s decision to continue to support job growth in our districts, by transitioning Lincoln Hills into a medium security adult facility. We look forward to working with him to provide a smooth and successful transition for everyone involved.” 
Representative Mary Felzkowski (R – Irma) and Senator Tom Tiffany (R – Hazelhurst) 
“The new policy initiatives unveiled today by the Governor demonstrate exciting progress in reforming Wisconsin’s juvenile corrections system. Today’s announcement also follows on legislation and policies I have introduced during my multiple sessions in the legislature. I am proud to have led the legislature in these efforts. I look forward to working with the Administration, the Department of Corrections, and my colleagues in the legislature on the details of the initiatives and seeing them implemented quickly and effectively. Today Wisconsin is taking its first step in meaningful corrections reform.”
Representative Evan Goyke (D – Milwaukee) 
“I am glad that Governor Walker is taking from best practices around the country and moving to a regional model of juvenile corrections. This regional approach has seen success in southeastern Wisconsin through the Racine County ACE program. The regional approach is only a partial solution, however. The renewed emphasis on mental health and drug treatment may be the key to addressing the problem of repeat juvenile offenders. I think that emphasis makes this approach somewhat unique and potentially highly successful.”
Senator Van Wanggaard (R – Racine) 
“Governor Walker and Secretary Litscher have taken the necessary time to craft a plan that is in the best interests of the students, families, communities, and the state. Evidence has shown that this model is more effective and will even be more efficient.”
Representative Michael Schraa (R – Oshkosh) 
“I believe this change will continue to build on the many reforms put into place by the Wisconsin Department of Corrections over the last two years. Building on our close collaboration with the Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators and others, we look forward to working with counties, courts, families, and others to further our focus on providing education and treatment to youth in a safe and secure setting. Ultimately, I believe it is our responsibility to provide hope for youth in our custody so they can return to the community and lead fulfilling, productive lives.”
Wisconsin Department of Corrections Secretary Jon Litscher 
“We are excited about the opportunity to expand our mental health treatment program which serves children who need our help the most. The data clearly shows that this program leads to more promising outcomes for kids and the community, and we applaud Governor Walker for making this investment in the future of our youth.”
Wisconsin Department of Health Services Secretary Linda Seemeyer 
“Our interest is in keeping our children safe and reasonably close to their family support network at a reasonable cost.”