, , ,

Closure plans ongoing for Lincoln Hills, Copper Lake as state board allocates funds for new facilities

The remote youth prisons remain open more than 2 years after a deadline to close them

A rendering of the new youth prison in Milwaukee
A new youth prison was approved by the Milwaukee Common Council on Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2023. Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin Department of Corrections

More than two years after it was originally slated to close, a Wisconsin youth prison remains open.

But plans to build replacement facilities are inching forward, with one slated to open by September 2026.

The Lincoln Hills School for boys and the nearby Copper Lake School for girls are being overseen by a court-appointed monitor. That’s after a 2017 civil rights lawsuit described abuse at the youth detention facility, including frequent pepper spraying of teens and the extensive use of solitary confinement as punishment for relatively minor infractions.

Stay informed on the latest news

Sign up for WPR’s email newsletter.

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

State officials say they eventually plan to replace the Copper Lake/Lincoln Hills prison in remote Irma with multiple smaller facilities in more densely populated areas, closer to where many of the youth have family.

“The focus on smaller juvenile correctional facilities over larger conventional facilities will foster increased family engagement, interaction with mentors, and access to treatment programs, providing a more supportive environment for youth rehabilitation,” a statement from the governor’s office said.

This week, the State Building Commission authorized design plans and construction of a facility to house 30 to 40 youth in Milwaukee. Construction could begin June 2024 and finish up by July 2026, according to documents submitted to the commission. Earlier this year, Milwaukee’s Common Council approved a zoning change to allow for the facility on the city’s north side.

Additionally, the State Building Commission agreed on Wednesday to use $6 million for site selection, planning, design and development of another 32-bed Type 1 youth detention facility in Dane County.Wisconsin’s Department of Corrections previously proposed building that facility in south central Wisconsin on land the department already owns in Fitchburg and Oregon. Democratic Gov. Tony Evers had asked for $83 million in the current budget to build that second facility, although the Republican-controlled Legislature ultimately rejected that funding level.

In a statement this week, Evers said he was “glad to see continued progress on our years-long effort to get youth closer to home and close Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake as a juvenile facility once and for all.”

He added, “Prioritizing the completion of a new Type 1 Facility in Milwaukee and advancing the development of a facility in Dane County will go a long way in improving outcomes for youth in our care.”

Type 1 facilities are operated by the state of Wisconsin to house youthful offenders. Those type of facilities are secured, such as with fences, barbed wire, locked doors and surveillance, to restrict the movement of residents.

Fences surround outdoor areas.
Basketball goals and picnic tables are located behind the living units at Lincoln Hills youth prison Thursday, April 15, 2021, in Irma, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

Lawmakers previously approved close to $46 million in borrowing to build the Milwaukee juvenile facility. Wisconsin’s current two-year budget, which was signed by Evers last month, included an additional $32.6 million in funding for the Milwaukee project.

Sharlen Moore, who advocates for reforming the juvenile justice system as co-founder of Youth Justice Milwaukee, said she supports building the Milwaukee facility so many of Wisconsin’s detained youth can be closer to home.

At the same time, Moore said Wisconsin should be focusing on alternatives to locking up young people. She said she wants to see Wisconsin reduce its population of incarcerated youth, so that the construction of additional juvenile prisons beyond the Milwaukee County facility is not necessary.

“We need more access for young people … to quality education, we need more access to affordable housing,” said Moore. “The root causes are the things that we need to be putting more money into, instead of millions and millions of dollars into building more youth prisons.”

There were 46 youth at Copper Lake and Lincoln Hills during the most recent report submitted by the court-appointed monitor, based on a site visit in May. During the previous reporting period, the population ranged from 62 to 75 young people, according the monitor. That’s down from about 170 teens several years ago.

Moore, who visited the facility earlier this week as a member of the governor’s Juvenile Justice Commission, said conditions at Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake are improving. But she said the extended timeline for closure remains disappointing.

“It means that young people are still quite a distance away from their families,” she said.

A 2018 law signed by former Republican Gov. Scott Walker called for Lincoln Hills/Copper Lake to close by January 2021. Evers later signed an extension to July 2021, though the deadline has also passed amid stalled plans for alternative facilities.

While no specific date has been set for shutting down the Irma facility, a DOC spokesperson said it will close once “appropriate placement” is available for all youth.