MADISON -- Gov. Scott Walker suddenly reversed course on the future of Wisconsin's youth prisons on Thursday, January 4th, announcing plans to shutter two facilities and move inmates elsewhere.
Walker's plan would move all of the young offenders out of Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake prisons and into five smaller, regional facilities. The new facilities would have just 36 beds each, and three of them appear destined for southeast Wisconsin.
Walker has previously advocated for keeping the Lincoln County facilities open, despite an inmate abuse scandal, criminal and administrative investigations, and inmate-on-worker attacks. The moves would not happen until 2019 under Walker's plan.
“By moving from one facility to several facilities across the state, and placing a focus on mental health and trauma-informed care, we believe this plan will improve long-term outcomes for both juveniles and our staff working at these facilities,” Walker said in a statement announcing the plan.
Republicans who have supported Walker's previous position on youth prisons said they backed his new approach.
"There’s no question in my mind that if we’re trying to rehabilitate juveniles, children, they should be closer regionally to their support systems," said state Rep. Joel Kleefisch, R-Oconomowoc.
Walker pledged to include $80 million in the 2019-2021 state budget to build facilities or renovate buildings to house the new youth detention centers. He faces re-election in November, before he could propose that budget.
"If it’s a priority that’s good enough for the next budget, we still have a year left to get it done," said Assembly Democratic Leader Gordon Hintz.
The Republican governor's spokesman said Walker would support speeding up the funding plan if lawmakers agreed.
The regional system looks like what Democrats have been calling for. Some of them praised Walker in emailed statements, but many questioned the timing as the governor stands for re-election.
"It's just about as transparent as the tape I used to wrap up my kids' Christmas presents a couple weeks ago that now suddenly the governor has had this idea," said Senate Democratic Leader Jennifer Shilling.
An inmate abuse scandal broke in 2015 and led to two investigations. There were repeated reports last fall of inmate attacks on prison workers.
Walker previously led a shakeup of top-level staff but resisted calls to close Lincoln Hills.
The governor's former Corrections secretary, Ed Wall, is writing a book about the scandal. Democrats said it appeared that Walker was trying to get out ahead of Wall's tell-all with Thursday's announcement.
But State Sen. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine, praised the governor for doing his research before making a decision.
"Sometimes you have to look at some of the best practices and put those best practices together and try to figure it out from there. I think that's what has happened," Wanggaard said.
Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake won't be vacant under Walker's plan. They would become a medium-security adult lockup, easing the state's prison overcrowding issue.
There are 166 inmates at Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake; down about 40 percent from before the scandal broke, Corrections Department records indicate.
The latest move was hailed by the Juvenile Law Center and the American Civil Liberties Union, which sued the state over the treatment of inmates at the juvenile prisons.
"While this is a step in the right direction, we will continue to pay attention to how young people are treated while they are being moved from the current facilities," said Larry Dupuis, legal director of ACLU of Wisconsin.