Gov. Scott Walker plans to convert the Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls into a prison for adult inmates — a move that would close a dark chapter for the youth prison that has been plagued by allegations of inmate abuse and unsafe working conditions for staff.

Walker said Thursday he plans instead to build six smaller youth facilities around the state for Wisconsin’s most serious juvenile offenders, including one new mental health facility in Madison for girls.

“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,” the governor said in a statement.

The proposed reorganization has been in the works for about a year, according to the governor’s office. It comes amid a three-year federal investigation in which authorities are considering charges against two Lincoln Hills guards accused of excessive force and after several federal lawsuits alleging inmates’ constitutional rights were violated — one of which resulted in a court order to reduce the use of pepper spray, restraints and solitary confinement at the facility.

The plan would help alleviate crowding among the state’s adult prisons, address questions of how to move the youth prison forward amid persistent staffing problems and the federal investigation, and blunt an election-year attack against Walker by his Democratic opponents for what they have described as ignoring the prison’s troubles.

If Walker wins re-election, he plans to include in the next state budget at least $80 million for the construction of five new juvenile prisons for up to three dozen inmates each. Lawmakers would need to approve the plan.

Up to three new prisons would be in southeastern Wisconsin near Milwaukee, though the sites have not yet been chosen. An additional mental health facility would be built on the campus of the Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center in Madison for female inmates.

While the new facilities wouldn’t open until after 2019, Walker plans to move some male inmates from Lincoln Hills to the Mendota campus this fall. In November, Department of Corrections officials indicated a desire to move the most aggressive inmates at the prison as a way to decrease the number of violent incidents at the facility.

The proposal will likely include hiring more staff to ensure each facility is compliant with federal staff-to-prisoner ratio requirements, and current staff at Lincoln Hills will be offered jobs at the new youth prisons or training to become adult correctional officers in order to remain working at the Irma campus.

DOC and the Department of Health Services, which operates the Mendota facility, will be responsible for drafting specific spending plans.

DOC Secretary Jon Litscher, who took over the department in 2016 after nearly all DOC officials who oversaw juvenile corrections quit or were fired, said in a statement the plan will “build on the many reforms” put in place since he took over.

Many key details are yet to be determined, however, including how education programs would be provided to the inmates and whether converting the Irma campus into an adult facility would require the approval of Lincoln County officials.

Missouri as model

The goal of the plan is similar to the juvenile correctional model in Missouri — recently profiled by the Wisconsin State Journal — that is hailed by juvenile justice experts.

In Missouri, juvenile offenders can be sentenced to one of more than 30 facilities throughout the state and those who commit the most serious crimes are placed in facilities of no more than 30 inmates.

Walker’s office was first told six years ago that the environment at the youth prison had become increasingly chaotic and unsafe. And since the investigation began at the Lincoln Hills facility in 2015, several lawmakers have proposed to close the facility or to study the Missouri model.

Rep. Evan Goyke, D-Milwaukee, recently unveiled his own legislative package that would accomplish the same goals as Walker’s plan and he has repeatedly called for a new plan that would move the inmates closer to their homes. The Lincoln Hills campus is more than 200 miles away from Milwaukee, where a significant number of inmates live.

Goyke said Thursday that Walker’s plan demonstrates “exciting progress in reforming Wisconsin’s juvenile corrections system” and said he looks forward to seeing the proposal “implemented quickly and effectively.”

“Today Wisconsin is taking its first step in meaningful corrections reform,” Goyke said.

Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele said Thursday Walker’s announcement will help the 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.”

Democrats critical

While some Democrats hailed the proposal, others called it a tactic to smooth over hurdles in Walker’s re-election bid for a third term.

State Superintendent Tony Evers, who is running against Walker for governor and has made the troubles at Lincoln Hills central to his argument to unseat Walker, said Walker’s plan doesn’t wash away the years of problems at the facility.

“How many kids have been abused during the five years Walker failed to act?” Evers said in a statement. “Now he wants us to believe the same people who caused the Lincoln Hills mess are going to fix it. We need responsible leaders who are more focused about solving problems and protecting lives than winning elections.”

Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, who along with a number of Democrats have called for such changes, said “it’s not that we’re not enthused for action, it’s certainly the right thing to do, but it’s a little rich coming from the governor who’s been the main obstacle to any kind of corrections reform — not just juvenile corrections.”

Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, called the plan a “transparent, cynical” move in an election year, and was made to get ahead of former DOC Secretary Ed Wall’s planned book detailing allegations that the Department of Justice under Attorney General Brad Schimel “botched” the state’s investigation into Lincoln Hills, allowing problems there to fester.

Using the Irma facility as an adult prison could provide more jobs there, the governor’s office said. The facility has room for about 600 inmates but now holds fewer than 200.

Rep. Mary Felzkowski, R-Irma, and Sen. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst, who represent the area, praised the plan as one that would support job growth.

Doug Curtis, who retired last year from Lincoln Hills after 20 years, said the plan does not address current safety issues at the facility.

“This decision doesn’t help the people at Lincoln Hills right now; it ignores the problems,” Curtis said. “This is just an idea that’s five years down the road.”

Tom Evenson, spokesman for Walker, said the plan is envisioned to be funded in the 2019-21 budget because “we want to work with all parties to implement it in a thoughtful and purposeful way.”

“If the Legislature wants to advance the plan sooner we would be supportive of those efforts,” he said.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, and a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said they both support the plan.

Numerous allegations

In December 2015, dozens of state investigators arrived at Lincoln Hills to interview staff as part of a secret John Doe investigation of child neglect, tampering with public documents, intimidation of victims, use of pepper spray to cause bodily harm and intimidation of witnesses.

The raid made public allegations that had been under investigation by state officials since early 2015.

One lawsuit filed since the investigation began is a class-action suit from former and current inmates represented by the American Civil Liberties Union-Wisconsin and the Juvenile Law Center. It alleges the use of pepper spray, restraints and solitary confinement had violated the right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment.

Jessica Feierman, associate director of Juvenile Law Center, said Thursday that the plan “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,” she said.

Molly Beck covers politics and state government for the Wisconsin State Journal.