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Wisconsin lawmakers scrap plan for new youth prisons: ‘Back to the drawing board’

MADISON — Republicans on the Legislature’s finance committee on Wednesday rejected a plan to build new institutions to replace Wisconsin’s troubled youth prison, saying the state doesn’t have the money for the facilities.

The move signals that the existing prison won’t shut down by the July 2021 deadline lawmakers imposed last year and raises questions about whether the prison will ever close.

The existing prison near Irma houses the Lincoln Hills School for male offenders and Copper Lake School for female ones. The institution has been dogged for years by allegations of guard-on-prisoner abuse. Lawmakers in 2018 passed a bill that would close the prison by January 2021 and replace it with new juvenile state prisons and smaller county-run detention centers. A lack of funding has hampered the transition, however; last summer lawmakers pushed the closure date back to July 1, 2021.

The state Department of Corrections submitted a plan to the finance committee that called for spending $73.2 million on two new youth prisons, one in the city of Milwaukee and another in Hortonia in Outagamie County. The full Legislature would have to authorize new borrowing to cover the costs.

Republicans who control the finance committee rejected the proposal, saying there’s no money for it and local residents and government officials in Milwaukee and Hortonia are outraged about the prospect of a new prison in their area.

“We’re going to say go back to the drawing board,” said committee co-chairman Rep. John Nygren.

Committee Democrats railed against the decision, saying it will now be years before the existing prison closes, if it does at all. Rep. Evan Goyke of Milwaukee, who spearheaded the 2018 bill, shouted that it could be years before the prison closes. He was so loud that Nygren told him another unnamed committee member had asked if Nygren could turn his microphone down, which only made Goyke angrier.

“I’m shouting because I’m emotional about it. I worked my tail off on this bill. I’m not going to apologize for being emotional, for being loud,” Goyke said. “It’s been too damn long that we haven’t acted to close Lincoln Hills. I’m going to shout. I’m going to yell. I’m tired and I’m angry.”

Republican Rep. Mark Born tried to smooth things over, calling the transition “a major reform” that won’t happen overnight. In the meantime, the population at the Irma prison should continue to drop, in turn resulting in better conditions.

“It’s certainly not stopping anything in its tracks,” Born said of the Republicans’ decision. “It’s going to take a couple budgets to make the … investments.”

The next state budget will cover the 2021-2023 biennium. That spending plan isn’t due until July 1, 2021. The next budget will be due on July 1, 2023.

Corrections Secretary Kevin Carr told reporters outside the hearing that he would talk to Democratic Gov. Tony Evers about other possible sites for the prison. But he said the cost shouldn’t surprise anyone and doing what’s best for young offenders doesn’t seem to be a Republican priority.

“Right now we’ve making a decision not to spend our money to do what’s best for these kids,” he said.

The finance committee did vote to partially fund four new county-run detention centers.

A grant committee led by Carr submitted a plan to the finance committee requesting $111 million in grants to build facilities in Brown, Dane, Milwaukee and Racine counties. Republicans approved the requests but cut $8.4 million from Milwaukee County’s total. The county’s plan calls for expanding an existing detention center and leasing new space; the $8.4 million would have covered the lease, but Republicans said leasing presents legal problems. They didn’t elaborate.

That brought the total grant amount down to $102 million. The bills setting out the closure deadlines for the Irma prison allocate $80 million in grants for county facilities; the Legislature or the state Building Commission would have to authorize borrowing the remaining $22 million the counties need.

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