The state’s youth prison, where inmates and staff have both described a chaotic and unsafe environment, would be closed within one year under a proposal floated this week by a Madison lawmaker.
“These juveniles have been systematically abused and neglected, and have had their constitutional rights violated time and again. We know that the current model of incarcerating juveniles does not work. It is time to take action,” Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, said in a memo seeking support from other lawmakers.
The bill would require the Department of Corrections to “permanently” close the Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls in Irma within one year from the date the bill became law.
The facility has been under investigation for nearly three years over allegations of inmate abuse, official misconduct, child neglect, tampering with public documents, intimidation of victims, use of pepper spray to cause bodily harm and intimidation of witnesses, among other potential crimes.
Since then, prison administrators have also been the target of a number of lawsuits brought by current and former inmates alleging their constitutional rights have been violated through excessive stays in isolation and use of pepper spray and shackles — including a class-action lawsuit moving through federal court that so far has prompted U.S. District Judge James Peterson to order DOC to drastically reduce or eliminate its use of solitary confinement, pepper spray and restraints to manage inmate behavior.
Staff in recent weeks have said the prison has become increasingly unsafe since the federal judge’s order, with prison guards defenseless against emboldened inmates and injuries to staff rising.
But it’s unclear if the proposal will get support from Republican lawmakers who control both houses of the Legislature.
Rep. Mary Felzkowski, R-Irma, said it’s time Taylor and other Democrats take responsibility for criticizing prison staff and referring to the inmates as “children.”
“These kids that are at Lincoln Hills, they didn’t get there because they are truant,” she said. Inmates at the prison are the state’s most serious juvenile offenders.
Felzkowski and Sen. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst, have asked Peterson to reverse the order in light of staff injuries since it took effect.
She said in an interview Monday that if DOC were given some leniency in how it manages behavior, the prison could be successful.
“I think we need to let the experts do their job,” she said.
The union that represents Lincoln Hills employees said the bill doesn’t indicate where juvenile offenders would go.
“We need a real plan to solve this crisis,” said Rick Badger, executive director of AFSCME Wisconsin. “This bill doesn’t address the root of the problems present at Lincoln Hills and the long-standing dysfunction in the juvenile corrections system.”
Taylor said the department has known “about the systemic problems surrounding Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake for many years without addressing the root of the issue.”
While investigators first raided the prison in late 2015, complaints about an unsafe environment at the facility were raised at DOC and to Gov. Scott Walker as early as 2012.
DOC Secretary Jon Litscher said last week that an upcoming study of prison infrastructure could include looking at closing or converting the prison to an adult prison but that he foresees it remaining the state’s facility for serious juvenile offenders.