Strip searches, pepper sprayings, toe amputations, suicide attempts, and long periods of solitary confinement. These are just a few incidents that have plagued Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake — two of Wisconsin’s large prison facilities for youths.

Despite continuing issues in Wisconsin’s youth prisons, and a commitment from lawmakers that the facilities are supposed to close by 2021, the Governor made clear last month that closing the facilities is unlikely without more funding.

Both Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake are bona fide prisons: They are surrounded by chain link fences and razor wire. And as with other large youth prisons across the country, they have been mired in controversy for some time. In addition to the practices and resulting injuries listed above, staff at both locations have lacked training, failed to document serious incidents or preserve video evidence, and neglected to report injuries to parents and the police. As a result, Lincoln Hills and Cooper Lake have been subject to a four-year federal investigation, and taxpayers have paid out more than $25 million in legal fees.

About six months ago, Ron Hermes took on the position as the new Division of Juvenile Corrections Administrator, of Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake Schools. And while he told Capital City Sunday last week that he’s trying to make these facilities safe, they are definitionally youth prisons. Hermes has admitted incidents will occur, including assaults, but “doesn’t believe they will be as severe.”

Don’t our children deserve better than less “severe” incidents in a youth prison? Yet thanks to delays and funding difficulties, the facilities are unlikely to close as planned.

We’ve known for some time what works in juvenile justice and what does not. Large youth prisons do not work, as the scandals afflicting Lincoln Hills and Cooper Lake demonstrate. This is largely because the key to rehabilitating youth is to foster meaningful relationships — between staff and youth, between youth and their families, and among youth themselves.

We also know that young people in smaller facilities are more likely to build trusting relationships with staff than those kept in large, impersonal facilities. Equally important to their progress are relationships with family members. Research indicates that youth who receive family visits while housed in juvenile facilities are more likely to demonstrate prosocial behavior while incarcerated and are less likely to reoffend after they are released than those who do not.

And yet, although 65% of the youth in Lincoln Hills and Cooper Lake are from Milwaukee, the facilities are three and a half hours away from the city, making it difficult for family to visit them. It should come as no surprise, then, that close to 60% of the young people housed at Lincoln Hills reoffend within three years of their release.

The close-to-home model, which exchanges prisons for community-based alternatives, stresses ‘safety in relationships’ — a phrase coined by Felipe Franco, the deputy commissioner of New York’s Administration for Children’s Services. In contrast to Lincoln Hills’ recidivism numbers, New York’s close-to-home program boasts a 14% readmission rate 

The good news is that last year, state lawmakers passed Act 185, which ordered the replacement of Lincoln Hills and Cooper Lake with smaller facilities. And Milwaukee is taking the opportunity to explore creating a more home-like facility — one that will be respectful toward youth housed there.

The bad news? The closure date for these facilities has been pushed back from January to July 2021–a date the Governor has made clear will not occur either. Lawmakers have failed to approve enough funding to actually close the facilities and replace them with facilities where youth can be housed close to home. And so far, no counties in northern or western Wisconsin have put forward proposals for new juvenile facilities. Additionally, the reforms leave out a key population — 17-year-olds — in a state that remains one of just four that still automatically prosecutes these young people as adults.

These are our children. They are the most precious thing on earth to us, and we have the utmost responsibility to do right by them. As James Baldwin wrote, “We will all profit by or pay for what they become.” We are already paying the price for ineffective facilities like Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake. It is time to close them.

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