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Milwaukee Residents Voice Ideas For Housing Juvenile Offenders

Marti Mikkelson
David Muhammad (left) and Mark Mertens (holding the mic) discuss plans for the county to house juvenile inmates

Several dozen people turned out Wednesday night to discuss how Milwaukee County will house juveniles once the troubled Lincoln Hills facility closes in two years. The teen prison in northern Wisconsin has been plagued by allegations of abuse, so the state decided to close it and move inmates to facilities closer to home. Those attending the meeting had a lot of ideas for how the county could provide better care for their loved ones.

About 75 people attended the meeting at the Wisconsin Black Historical Society, on Milwaukee’s north side. They listened to a presentation from Mark Mertens, administrator for the Milwaukee County division of youth and family services.  Mertens says he sees the closing of Lincoln Hills as an opportunity for major juvenile justice reform.

“To transform it. To make it something that is not about incarceration, that is not about just locking people up, deferring the risk and then releasing them back into the community where they’re not any better off. In fact, they’re worse off than they were when they went in,” Mertens says.

Mertens says the county will focus more on residential treatment programs and trauma-informed care. The county also plans to partner with educators, so inmates will have a better chance at integrating back into the community.

Another person who addressed the crowd was David Muhammad, deputy director of the county department of health and human services. As an alternative to sending youth to Lincoln Hills, he says a 24-bed non-secure juvenile facility will open soon on Milwaukee’s north side. Muhammad says the county is also looking for a site to house a secure facility for young inmates.

“We need this to be close to families. We need this to be accessible to public transit. We also need to make sure that we can leverage existing relationships with service providers,” Muhammad says.

Some people in the crowd seemed pleased with the plan. Terron Edwards says he’s known several young people who’ve stayed at Lincoln Hills. He thinks the county’s emphasis on reclamation is a step in the right direction.

“We want to look for rehabilitation as opposed to punishment. Just punishment without any kind of means or plans, that’s never helped anything, especially when it comes to our young people,” Edwards says.

Meshelle Preston says some of her family members have served time at Lincoln Hills.

“I don’t believe that juveniles should be housed in a place where they’re going to be abused and misused because that’s where a majority of them come from anyway — abuse, neglect. And to go supposedly to be rehabilitated and get treated the same way is trauma to me, and now the young men have to deal with trauma from being in there,” she says.

Preston says she appreciates the county’s approach to trauma-informed care and thinks it’s paramount to reforming young inmates.

Marti was a reporter with WUWM from 1999 to 2021.
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