Milwaukee site selected to replace troubled Lincoln Hills youth prison

Milwaukee Common Council to hold special meeting Friday regarding the site

A sign says "Copper Lake School, Lincoln Hills School" in front of a tall fence with barbed wire.
A fence surrounds Wisconsin’s Lincoln Hills youth prison Thursday, April 15, 2021, in Irma, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

The troubled Lincoln Hills youth prison in Irma is a step closer to closing its doors after Gov. Tony Evers announced a new Milwaukee site has been selected for a juvenile correctional facility.

The Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls facilities have long been troubled by allegations of abuse by staff, and instances of violence both directed toward staff and by staff toward youth. The facilities were the subject of a lengthy FBI investigation into alleged civil rights violations. That probe closed in 2019 without charges.

Gov. Evers announced Tuesday that a new site, at 7930 W. Clinton Ave. in Milwaukee, has been acquired by the Wisconsin Department of Administration. Even so, it could be months before construction on the new facility begins, as local and state approvals are still needed.

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“Today’s important announcement means we are one major step closer to getting kids out of these facilities, and we are incredibly grateful that the city of Milwaukee recognizes the importance of moving forward to do just that,” Evers said in a statement about the site.

A June report found that a “staffing crisis” at the facilities is causing youth to be confined to their rooms for long periods and creating deteriorating attitudes and behaviors among the youth there. Irma is a small town of about 1,200 people in northern Lincoln County. Most of the teenagers housed at the prison are from Milwaukee, which means many families have to travel over 200 miles for visits.

Next, it’s up to the Milwaukee Common Council to approve the selection. The council is expected to hold a special meeting this Friday to provide final support needed for the site.

“The city of Milwaukee recognizes the incredible importance of not allowing delays in this project and the end goal of bringing kids closer to home,” Milwaukee Common Council President José Pérez said in a statement.

The June report from the court-ordered monitor found Lincoln Hills School had a 41 percent vacancy rate for youth counselors, a 48 percent vacancy rate for teachers and a 67 percent vacancy rate for social workers. Vacancies in all of those categories had increased since last fall, and the report found that “the current staffing situation is having a profound negative impact on daily operations.”

Department of Corrections Secretary Kevin Carr has hoped the move to more densely populated Milwaukee County will make hiring easier.

“This is a significant moment for DOC and the state of Wisconsin, but more importantly, for the kids in our care,” Secretary Carr said in a statement. “Everyone agreed back in 2018 that moving youth closer to their families and culturally-relevant programming were key factors in improving the state’s juvenile justice system. We’re excited to move ahead, complete the work that remains, and begin the long-overdue work on a new juvenile corrections facility in Southeast Wisconsin.”

Some of the practices exposed in the scrutiny of the facility led to a class-action lawsuit by the ACLU. That suit ended in a settlement that ordered the state to eliminate the use of pepper spray and punitive solitary confinement, and required the publication of regular reports by an outside monitor. Amid the FBI probe in 2018, then-Gov. Scott Walker signed a law that would have closed the facilities. But in the years that followed, lawmakers failed to fund an alternative. Gov. Tony Evers moved the deadline for closure to July 2021. The state missed that deadline too.

The state has spent more than $25 million in legal fees and settlements resulting from abuse and maltreatment at the facilities. But the Evers administration has also invested more than $4.5 million “to improve the atmosphere and safety at the schools,” according to a statement.

“There’s no doubt we’ve made tremendous improvements at our state’s current facilities, but the goal for me and my administration since day one has been to close Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake and to get our kids closer to home as soon as we safely and responsibly could,” Evers said.

The move was also praised by the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin. Abby Kanyer, deputy director of community engagement at the ACLU of Wisconsin, said the move will allow youth to move closer to their communities.

“We are so glad that Governor Evers’ actions today proved what several other organizations and we have known all along: that we did not have to choose between bringing our incarcerated youth closer to home and helping Milwaukee men reintegrate into their communities,” Kanyer said in a statement.

Evers enacted Wisconsin Act 252 this year, which provides $42 million needed to build a state-run juvenile correctional facility in Milwaukee County. The acquisition of the site also requires a change in the zoning ordinance, which would need to be approved by the city plan commission. The common council would also need to approve the site.