MADISON, Wis. (WBAY) - 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.