MILWAUKEE -- Milwaukee activists are pleading with the state to close Wisconsin's only youth prisons after inmates repeatedly attacked workers there this fall.
Advocates from Youth Justice Milwaukee, former inmates, and a Democratic state senator criticized Gov. Scott Walker's administration for the continued chaos at Lincoln Hills School for Boys northwest of Wausau during a news conference Thursday, November 16th.
Inmate attacks on workers at the prison have sent at least five people to the hospital this fall. In one case, inmates climbed to the roof and threw shingles and pieces of metal at guards. In another, a staff member was injured so badly that the employee may have required knee surgery, a retired union official said.
"Every news story out of Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake make it clear these facilities are broken and can't be fixed. What is happening there is state-sponsored child abuse," said Jeffrey Roman of the group Youth Justice Milwaukee. "It’s not surprising that some young people act out given these conditions."
Problems at Lincoln Hills first surfaced in December 2015, when agents raided the facility after an inmate abuse scandal.
The state and federal government conducted separate investigations, and a federal judge ordered the State Department of Corrections in July to decrease the use of solitary confinement and pepper spray at the facilities. But Walker's administration told the judge this fall that it was not complying with the order because of the ongoing unrest.
"Correctional officers have now also been harmed. What are we waiting on?" said state Sen. Lena Taylor, D-Milwaukee. "Does someone have to die?"
One Milwaukee teen who was confined at Copper Lake School for Girls for nine months until early this year said there was another problem: teachers regularly don't show for class.
"They ain't never showed up. We barely get teachers on the girls' side. All the boys get the teachers," said Klaranda, who spoke on the condition that her last name not be used. She said it was not uncommon for there to be a teacher available only three days a week.
Despite the activists' calls, it is likely that no alternative facility will be made available in the short term.
While the cost of operating Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake is increasing, building a regional facility near Milwaukee County -- where the majority of offenders come from -- would be expensive.
No elected officials from the City of Milwaukee or Milwaukee County spoke Thursday, and some who did attend the news conference expressed frustration that local leaders were not in agreement on how to move forward.
"We have to have a will to do it," Taylor said.
Tristan Cook, a spokesman for the state Department of Corrections, said Thursday that the agency has made improvements in the youth prison over the past two years.
"DOC has made significant investments to enhance safety and bolster education, programming, and mental health services provided to youth," Cook said in an emailed statement. "Additional changes have increased the amount of time that youth spend each day engaged in pro-social, productive activities."
Cook said the agency has created an advisory council so youth inmates could bring their concerns to the facility's operators. He included in his statement a list of violent crimes that offenders had committed before going to the youth prisons, including murder, kidnapping, arson, armed robbery, strangulation and sexual assault.
The inmate populations at Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake have fallen significantly since the December 2015 raid.
In late November 2015, Lincoln Hills held 227 boys and Copper Lake held 35 girls. Last week, the populations were 129 boys and 21 girls, respectively.
For details on Youth Justice Milwaukee’s recommended alternatives to sending youth to Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake Juvenile Prisons, click here.