Unrest At Lincoln Hills Youth Prison In September Renews Calls To Move Youth Closer To Home

Oct 15, 2019

Lincoln Hills is once again in the news.

The juvenile facility has been in the limelight for years, after allegations surfaced in 2014 of kids being physically and sexually abused and the ACLU filed a lawsuit over the use of solitary confinement and pepper spray.  

Before leaving office, Republican Gov. Scott Walker set a date to close Wisconsin's two juvenile facilities in favor of regional detention centers. He set a deadline of 2021.

Milwaukee County has submitted a proposal to the state for funding to remodel a facility to make it suitable to house more violent offenders. County leaders say that if the Joint Finance Committee does not act on that proposal soon, the deadline will not be met.

READ: Some Milwaukee Residents Upset About Proposed Site To House Lincoln Hill Inmates

An account of a guard being choked and another suffering a broken nose by juveniles at the Lincoln Hills School For Boys appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Monday. According to the story, there were two days of violence in September. It happened just weeks after a court ordered monitor and the ACLU toured the facilities, noting that things were getting better.

"When we were there in mid-September, overall, it seemed like there had been a lot of improvement in terms of the well-being of the youth and even the staff," says Karyn Rotker. She's a senior staff attorney with the ACLU of Wisconsin.

"When I go up it's very common for youth to kind of line up to want to talk to me about whatever concerns they have. And there was actually a lot less of that in September. So, it seemed like there was more relationship building and alternative forms of holding the youth accountable," Rotker says.

She says she hasn't seen the reports from the Department of Corrections (DOC) and says she can’t speak to what happened when the guards were injured. Still, she remains positive about the direction in which things are going at Lincoln Hills and the Copper Lake School for Girls.

"We know that progress isn't always linear. We know even in the past couple of years there have been a few points where things have moved forward and then there's been an incident or two but progress has continued to be made. And I think that's what's happening here," Rotker says.

READ: 6 Things To Know About What's Happening With Lincoln Hills & Copper Lake Youth Prison

Even with that said, Rotker says it's time for the young people there to return closer to home. Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake are in northern Wisconsin, about a three-and-a-half-hour drive from Milwaukee.

"The youth are still very far away from home. It's still a large institutional facility and in a not very diverse part of the state and we still strongly support bringing these youth home to their communities," Rotker says.

Back in July, Milwaukee County submitted a grant application to renovate existing facilities to house more serious juvenile offenders. Mark Mertens, administrator for the Milwaukee County Division of Youth and Family Services, says they're waiting on the state's Joint Finance Committee to make a decision.

"We're in the position that if we're going to meet the deadline of bringing our youth home by July 1, 2021, then we're going to have to begin the construction process in the very near future. Probably before the end of this calendar year," Mertens says. 

But Mertens says nothing will happen until the grant money is approved by the state. The county is seeking 95% of the cost.

When it comes to this latest incident at Lincoln Hills, Mertens says he also has not seen the report from DOC, but he has a couple of ideas.

"I think there was some comment that it could have been related to youth testing limits in relation to the elimination of pepper spray. That's certainly a possibility. I think it also may have to do with staff preparation," Mertens says. Preparation, he says, in terms of whether staff are ready to present alternatives to the use of pepper spray and solitary confinement.