MILWAUKEE — A years-long effort to close Lincoln Hills Juvenile Prison in northern Wisconsin faces another setback. The state’s goal is to replace it with a new youth detention facility in Milwaukee County, but a Republican leader says the Wisconsin Assembly won’t approve funding until a site is selected.
State and federal investigations several years ago at Lincoln Hills led to a scathing report detailing use-of-force violations at the youth prison. A Milwaukee man says his experience alone is enough reason to shutter the facility and offer troubled teens a fresh start in the city many call home.
Roberto of Milwaukee’s south-side says he was just 13 years old when he was convicted of battery and sent to Lincoln Hills, the state’s highest security youth prison.
“We made a mistake and we were in Lincoln Hills to pay back our debt to society, but no one deserves to be treated like an animal like they treat you at Lincoln Hills,” he said.
Roberto claims his four years at Lincoln Hills more than a decade ago were filled with abuse at the hands of corrections officers.
"I was hit with a flashlight while handcuffed, I was like handcuffed and held down and assaulted by the staff members,” he said. “My first time being pepper sprayed by them, they did a silent entry, held me down and forced my mouth open and sprayed into my mouth."
A lengthy investigation found three inmates were mistreated by corrections officers, violating their civil rights. The state agreed to pay victims $5 million in a settlement. In 2018, former Governor Scott Walker ordered Lincoln Hills be closed and replaced with regional juvenile detention centers, including in Milwaukee County to keep local inmates near their loved ones.
“My sister would come once a month on a bus that they would provide because it was so far she couldn’t drive out herself,” Roberto said. “It’s hard to have contact with your family and loved ones because you’re so far away.”
A bipartisan group of lawmakers agreed to approve funding for a $42 million juvenile detention facility in Milwaukee County, but on Tuesday, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said he wouldn’t allow a vote until they know exactly where it’s going.
"It's very challenging for us to just say we're going to pass a bill with a bunch of money without a site to have it actually go to, without the due diligence that happens and that has to happen from the Evers administration,” Speaker Vos said.
A few years ago, plans to build the juvenile facility along Teutonia Avenue on the border of Milwaukee and Glendale fell apart after local leaders expressed concerns about putting it close to a middle school.
The latest suggestion of re-purposing the Felmers O. Chaney Correction Center on Milwauekee’s northwest side faces scrutiny as well.
Sylvester Jackson with Milwaukee’s Ex-Incarcerated People Organizing chapter thinks it would be foolish to get rid of a facility that currently helps incarcerated adults prepare to re-enter society by getting them set up with jobs, resources and housing.
"We're saying that if anything, add more beds onto the Chaney Center instead of destroying what's already shown to be a working, proven model of helping people reintegrate back into the community after doing time for the punishment. And to look at all the space here in Wisconsin, not to mention Milwaukee County and other spaces where there is alternatives that can be taken,” Jackson said.
Funding a new 32-bed juvenile facility in Milwaukee County is said to be the last step needed to close Lincoln Hills, which currently holds about 40 teenage inmates.