MILWAUKEE — The state legislature has approved funding to close the troubled Lincoln Hills juvenile prison in northern Wisconsin and replace it with a new youth detention facility in Milwaukee County.
The preferred location being considered by the state’s Department of Corrections is facing intense pushback from the community and now both Milwaukee mayoral candidates.
"I don't want it to be replacing Felmers O. Chaney, and that would be a huge mistake because that facility does good work. We need this in addition to that,” former Alderman Bob Donovan said Sunday night during TMJ4’s mayoral debate.
"I know that Felmers Chaney is a location that's up for consideration. I don't necessarily want to see it there either,” responded Acting Mayor Cavalier Johnson.
The Felmers O. Chaney Correctional Center helps adult inmates prepare to re-enter society by setting them up with jobs and housing in Milwaukee.
Wisconsin’s Department of Corrections (DOC) said it would prefer to demolish the Felmers O. Chaney adult facility and use the land to build a brand new juvenile center there, because the legislature’s bill requires it to be built in Milwaukee County and the state already owns the property. Local opponents believe the site on the city’s north side already serve an important purpose.
"Why do they want to take something that's working and reinvent the wheel?” asked William Harrell.
Harrell says he knows from personal experience that the Felmers O. Chaney Correctional Center is working. He was an inmate there more than a decade ago and says it set him up for a path to success after incarceration.
"It's right in the heart of the city so family can come and visit, the jobs are right around the community and that's how it really helped me,” he said.
Sylvester Jackson with Milwaukee’s chapter of Ex-Incarcerated People Organizing, known as EXPO, says he knows what it’s like not to receive resources at a place like Felmers before returning to society.
"It was hell, because I spent a lot of nights out in the cold until I was fortunate enough to get a car and then I spent maybe six to seven months in a car,” he said.
Jackson and a local task force have organized to help the Department of Corrections identify another location for a juvenile detention facility in Milwaukee.
“We just need them to stop looking at convenience and look at what’s important to the lives,” he said. “This is not just about money, it’s about people’s lives that they’re playing with.”
The Department of Corrections says it must act with a sense of urgency because this process that started a few years ago has been delayed due to other proposed Milwaukee sites falling flat.
Cristal Parker lives just a block away from the Felmers O. Chaney Correctional Center.
"Right in my backyard, they can come,” she said.
Parker says she supports tearing down Felmers to replace it with a juvenile center because she believes it’s more important for troubled youth to be closer to their families than it is for adult inmates.
"It's a long, long drive to Lincoln Hills and a lot of them need family support so I think it would be appropriate the children are sent to that facility down the street here,” she said.
The Department of Corrections says if it is able to move forward with building the juvenile facility on the Felmers O. Chaney property, it would look for other locations in Milwaukee to relocate the 100 male inmates who currently live there. Although the state is responsible for picking the site, the mayor’s office says it ultimately needs approval from Milwaukee’s Common Council.