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Milwaukee County Seeks Alternatives to Lincoln Hills

LaToya Dennis
Milwaukee County will open a 24 bed non-secure residential facility for juveniles in the spring as an alternative to sending youth to Lincoln Hills

It’s been a couple years since news broke about allegations of inmate abuse at two state-run juvenile prisons in northern Wisconsin. Still, concerns remain about the safety of the teens -- and staff -- at the boys' prison, Lincoln Hills, and the neighboring facility for girls, Copper Lake. 

Tuesday, Lincoln Hills was put on lockdown, so staff could search for weapons and contraband. Since the start of the investigation, some elected officials have pushed for alternatives to the juvenile prisons. Progress has been slow.

Democratic State Senator Lena Taylor of Milwaukee argues the abuse of juveniles and the attacks on staff are two sides of the same coin.

“The public safety issues revolve around not having enough staffing. It revolves around not having quality training for the staff. And as a result, that creates environments for them that are not even necessarily safe. And so, it’s not a healthy environment for employees or individuals that are incarcerated,” Taylor says.

Taylor says the only way to ensure a safe environment is by having enough staff, trained in best practices. Ultimately, though, she wants Milwaukee County to have more control over where it sends teens who get in trouble with the law.

“Give us the kids (be)cause you don’t know what to do. This is so unacceptable. It is so inhumane. Yes, these kids did wrong, but they’re human. They deserve to be treated humanely. Those people are going to work, they deserve to come home and not have to be stressed out about if they’re going to be safe,” Taylor says.

Taylor says she plans to reintroduce legislation to close Lincoln Hills, and legislation that would give Milwaukee County more control. Meanwhile, Milwaukee County says it’s no longer waiting on permission from the state to act. Mark Mertens runs the county’s delinquency and court services division.

“Mostly, our strategy right now is around using the alternatives that we have in the community,” Mertens says.

Mertens says Milwaukee County has made a big dent in the number of youth sent to Lincoln Hills. At the start of last year, there were 125. Now, the number sits at around 55.

“Some are going to different out-of-home placements, residential placements. Some are being served in the community with programs like Running Rebels where other clinical services that they’re getting in the community along with supervision, sometimes even intensive supervision programs,” Mertens says.

Mertens says the county's goal is to increase residential treatment programs, so the county doesn't have to send teens away. One of the first steps is the creation of a 24-bed non-secure facility that will open in the spring. Mertens says when it comes to a secure residential treatment program, that’s going to take a lot more work.

“The trouble is that no such thing exists currently in Wisconsin. Even though it exists in statue, there’s no capacity to license such a facility. So we’ve worked to get those laws changed, but have been unsuccessful thus far,” Mertens says.

In the meantime, Milwaukee County is keeping a closer watch on the roughly 55 youth still up north, according to Mertens.

He says the county has hired additional staff to make visits at least monthly, to check on their wellbeing.

LaToya was a reporter with WUWM from 2006 to 2021.
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