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Youth prisons are still open but mental health challenges continue

Wisconsin Department of Corrections
In 2018, then-Governor Scott Walker signed a law to shut the ‘schools’ at Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake, but they’re still open.

Wisconsin still doesn’t know when it will close its two youth prisons. In 2018, then-Governor Scott Walker signed a law to shut the ‘schools’ at Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake, but they’re still open. And while conditions have been improving, the kids being held there still face tremendous mental health challenges.

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Dealing with the mental health of the kids at Lincoln Hills/Copper Lake is a daunting task. Tracy Johnson, who oversees mental health care there, says just about every one of the 49 boys and 12 girls currently housed at the facilities has some mental health needs. More than half are on psychotropic medications and almost all report trauma.

Johnson says mental health care starts as soon as kids arrive on-site. “From the moment the youth arrives, we assign them a clinician, so that psychology staff member will follow them throughout their stay at that facility," Johnson says.

She says there are 16 staff members who offer individual therapy, group therapy, and crisis management, among other services.

It wasn’t always that way. Psychologist Aryssa Washington says caseloads were very high and she didn’t see most of the clients very often when she first came to Copper Lake in 2016 for an internship.

“You see certain clients like once every month,” she remembers," you see certain clients once every two weeks, almost very reflective of...the adult or corrections population.”

Washington ended up getting a full-time job at Copper Lake when she graduated. By the time she left last summer, she says it felt much more like a clinic or hospital. “It’s not just therapy,” she says. “It's not like we just do a therapy session and we're done.” Instead, mental health staff are involved in all areas of the kids’ lives.

The average daily population at Lincoln Hills/Copper Lake has dropped by more than two-thirds since 2016. This mirrors what’s happened elsewhere, as the overall number of kids being locked up has dropped significantly.

Find out more:
Lake Effect's Audrey Nowakowski speaks with American Public Media mental health correspondent Alisa Roth about the unique mental health challenges young people at Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake are facing.

Wisconsin’s juvenile corrections system has been rocked by a series of scandals in recent years. And there have been a number of lawsuits that were filed after several kids tried to kill themselves.

A federal investigation ended in 2019 without any charges being filed.

But there have been a number of changes made at the facilities since 2018, when the state settled a class action lawsuit brought by the Wisconsin ACLU and the Juvenile Law Center, a non-profit, public interest law firm that represents children.

As part of the settlement, a federal judge ordered oversight by an outside monitor. Those reports started in January 2019 and they show a general improvement in conditions, which the psychologists Johnson and Washington also described.

But some of the monitor’s findings are still worrying for how conditions there may affect the kids’ mental health. One example: the settlement ordered the facilities to mostly stop using solitary confinement, except when kids were at serious risk of hurting themselves.

Kate Burdick, a senior attorney at the Juvenile Law Center, worries that the staff have been interpreting the idea of serious risk loosely.

“Our concerns are that they may be using it when it's not a concern about self harm, and it's or it's not a serious self harm, or it's nothing imminent,” she says.

Kids on this kind of observation status only get two hours a day outside of their rooms and don’t have access to classes or other activities.

Solitary confinement is known to make symptoms of mental illness worse, or even trigger symptoms in people who didn’t have them before, and correctional facilities are known to look for ways to circumvent rules about keeping prisoners in solitary.

The monitor’s most recent report is from July 2021. In it, she wrote that kids complained to her that staff were still using too much force. They also told her that they don’t have enough meaningful activity.

The facilities present other challenges to the mental health of the people there. More than half the kids come from places that are several hours away, which makes it hard for families to visit.

One of the plans that’s been floated as a replacement is to build smaller facilities that would let kids stay closer to home.

Wisconsin’s correctional system also has some of the worst racial disparities of any state. Many of the kids are Black or Native American, while staff in the facilities are largely white.

Burdick says all of these are reasons the facilities need to be shut down. “At the end of the day, it’s really not a healthy place for them to be growing up,” she said.

Legislators have been arguing over the cost of the various alternatives, but the current set up is very expensive. Under the 2022 fiscal year budget, counties pay the state $1,154 a day per kid. That adds up to more than $400,000 a year.

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