MADISON -- A key Wisconsin Republican says fellow lawmakers should encourage judges to send youth offenders to the state's Lincoln Hills youth prison, convinced that significant progress has occurred since an abuse scandal was uncovered in late 2015.
After state lawmakers from both parties toured the Lincoln County facility on Monday, March 27th, they had far different takeaways during a meeting held at the state Capitol three days later. Democrats said the state should close Lincoln Hills, while Republicans said no major changes should be made.
"I was extremely and pleasantly surprised by what I saw up there," said state Rep. Michael Schraa, the Republican chairman of the Assembly Corrections committee. "I was comfortable leaving there without a nagging feeling that there's abuse taking place."
The FBI is continuing to investigate the abuse scandal, which became public in December 2015. Separately, the ACLU of Wisconsin has filed a lawsuit on behalf of several young offenders' families.
Schraa praised the state Department of Corrections for policy changes at the facility. He said the prison guards' use of pepper spray had decreased and there are new policies for how long an offender can spend in solitary confinement.
Democratic state Reps. David Bowen and Evan Goyke said they talked with one young offender who said he'd been in solitary for 18 straight days.
Bowen said they also spoke with staff members who became emotional about being overworked. In one case, a worker said some staff were forced to work 16-hour shifts and return to work the next day.
"I have very serious concerns that our staff do not have the support needed to not have an explosive situation at the school," he said.
Schraa said he felt staff morale was good. But, to the extent that it remains a problem, Schraa blamed the ongoing investigations.
"It would be a burden lifted if the (investigation) report would be sooner than later," Schraa said. "I think the longer it lingers, it does have an effect."
Judges stopped sentencing young offenders to Lincoln Hills after the abuse scandal broke, and the prison population dropped from 228 in December 2015 to 151 in January 2017, according to state data.
The population has rebounded slightly, to 165 in late March. Most of the offenders are from Milwaukee County.
Schraa said fellow lawmakers should tell their local judges that positive things are happening at Lincoln Hills.
"That’s all of our committee members’ responsibilities, to talk to your judges," he said during Thursday's meeting.
"That is not what I will be advocating for. That's definitely disappointing to hear," Bowen said. "I think today proved how far apart we are, unfortunately."
The state receives money from counties for housing their inmates and, because of the declining youth prison population, Goyke said Lincoln Hills is a bad business deal for taxpayers.
Democrats said the state should close the facility and reopen it as an OWI treatment center.
Schraa said he doesn't think that would be possible because of an agreement between Lincoln County and the state that limits how the property can be used.