Wisconsin’s troubled youth prison that Gov. Scott Walker wants to convert to an adult facility has a new superintendent, its fourth leader in just over two years.
The state Department of Corrections announced Thursday that 24-year agency veteran Jason Benzel was hired to run the Lincoln Hills-Copper Lake prisons for boys and girls in Irma, about 30 miles north of Wausau. He will begin Jan. 22.
The post had been vacant since the previous superintendent, Wendy Peterson, resigned in August to take a lower-paying job as education director. Benzel will be paid $101,000 a year, the same as Peterson when she was superintendent.
The prison is the subject of multiple lawsuits alleging inmate abuse, and a federal investigation has been ongoing for three years. Walker announced this month that he wants to move juveniles out of it in 2019, but he would be open to moving faster. Walker’s plan calls for creating smaller, regional juvenile prisons.
Democrats have been critical of Walker moving so slowly to enact changes, saying he’s only proposing something now as a political move in advance of the November election.
Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said Thursday he wants long-term solutions for Lincoln Hills, but he’s in no rush to move juveniles out of it because judges could send them to county facilities instead.
“I would like to do it in a way that allows us to get the right answer as quickly as we can, but I don’t want to rush to judgment until we’ve had time to really study it and understand all the possibilities,” he said.
Benzel began his career as a guard and has held a number of positions within the adult prison system, most recently deputy warden at the Prairie du Chien adult prison. He’s also worked as a juvenile review and release specialist.
“I have full confidence in Jason in his new role … and look forward to working closely with him as we continue to make further enhancements and begin work to transition towards a regional juvenile correctional model,” Corrections Secretary Jon Litscher said in a statement.