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Milwaukee Leaders Want State to Shutter Lincoln Hills And Copper Lake

Wisconsin Department of Corrections

Milwaukee community leaders are calling on Gov. Scott Walker to close the Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake juvenile facilities in northern Wisconsin. The state-run prisons have been plagued by accusations of abuse – from both inmates and guards.

Many inmates are from Milwaukee. It’s unclear whether the governor will comply with the request.

About two dozen community leaders gathered Thursday at Project Excel, a youth services center on Milwaukee’s north side, to talk about the ongoing problems at Lincoln Hills. Jeffrey Roman is co-founder of Youth Justice Milwaukee. He says his organization has been calling for the closure of the juvenile facility for months –and a spike in recent violent incidents makes the request more urgent.

“Every news story out of Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake makes it clear that these facilities are broken and can’t be fixed. What is happening there is state sponsored child abuse,” Roman says.

Roman called on the state to move the Milwaukee inmates back to the city, and place them in smaller, community-based treatment facilities. He believes state and local officials could also find spaces closer to home to place prisoners who need high-security settings.

Credit Marti Mikkelson
Community leaders called on the state Thursday to close Lincoln Hills

Stories of abuse and neglect of inmates first surfaced in 2015, after state and federal agents raided Lincoln Hills. The two prisons have been under federal investigation for three years. One person previously incarcerated at Copper Lake School for Girls, near Lincoln Hills, is Klaranda.

“At Copper Lake I felt like the staff didn’t want to help me, they only wanted to punish me. At one point they put me in solitary confinement for weeks and another time for a month. When you’re in solitary confinement, you’re alone for 23 hours of the day and I felt like I was being left behind. I struggled to go on and felt like I was losing my mind,” Klaranda says.

Klaranda says while both prisons are referred to as schools, the learning environment is poor. State Sen. Lena Taylor of Milwaukee says conditions have gotten worse – and now there are reports of inmates assaulting guards. She says she fears things will escalate to tragedy.

“Correctional officers have now been harmed. What are we waiting on? Does someone have to die?” Taylor asks.

Taylor says what bothers her, are Gov. Walker’s recent remarks that he doesn’t plan on visiting the troubled facilities before the end of next year, when his second term draws to a close. Walker says he trusts the Department of Corrections will make necessary changes.

“We have the full expectation that the qualified and dedicated public servants who work in the Department of Corrections will continue to act to ensure the safety of not only fellow staff, but of the offenders and all others who are there,” Walker says.

Walker is at the Republican Governors Association annual meeting this week – and a spokesman declined to comment on whether he will close the two juvenile prisons.

Community leaders at Thursday’s event also called on Milwaukee County officials to stop the flow of inmates to the facilities. County Executive Chris Abele says the number of prisoners sentenced to Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake has dropped from 125 – to 55 – in the past year. He says the county will open a 24 bed staff-secure residential treatment facility for juveniles next spring, as an alternative to sending young people to Lincoln Hills.

In a statement, the Wisconsin Department of Corrections says young people who are confined to Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake are high-security inmates who have failed in community-based settings.  The DOC also notes that it has no plans to transfer such prisoners to adult facilities, because it's against the law.

Marti was a reporter with WUWM from 1999 to 2021.
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