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Lincoln Hills Workers Make Plea for Better Conditions & Earlier Closing Date for Facilities

Wisconsin Department of Corrections

Warning: some listeners may find the details in this story disturbing and graphic.

  The Lincoln Hills-Copper Lake juvenile prisons in Lincoln County were set to close this year under a law passed in 2018.

That deadline won’t be met.

The biggest issue has been where to put the children.

Ahead of last week’s Joint Committee on Finance budget hearing WXPR asked lawmakers about where things stand.

Rep. Evan Goyke (D- Milwaukee) said legislation that would create new facilities have been sitting in the JCF for almost two years.

“You can’t just move the kids and put them in a hotel, you have to have the appropriate replacement facility open and ready to go. We could do that now. We could pass the funding for the facility in Madison and, in this budget, we could pass the funding for the remaining alternatives,” said Goyke. “While we won’t make the date this summer, the sooner we approve those replacement facilities the sooner that facility in Lincoln County closes.”

Goyke’s Republican colleagues on the JCF say they’ve asked the Department of Corrections for a detailed chronology of what they would like to see happen.

Representative Mark Born (R-Beaver Dam) said he knows it’s a priority.

“It’s important for this region to close that and move it toward adult facility and as Howard said we need to work on what the best place for these kids are. I think it will be a bipartisan solution like you’ve been in the last few years,” said Born.

Governor Tony Evers’ budget proposal calls for spending $46 million to create a new youth prison in Milwaukee County and further investing in the Mendota Mental Health Institute in Madison as a place for the kids and teens at Copper Lake and Lincoln Hills to go to.

But those facilities wouldn’t be ready for years, meaning the Lincoln County facilities wouldn’t close until 2024.

While lawmakers debate how best to go about the transition, workers at the prisons say conditions are as bad as they’ve ever been.

A recent report from the court-ordered monitor of the facility said there’s been ‘vast improvements’ in overall atmosphere since December.

“There’s not a time in history where a statement would more untrue for workers than today,” said Sean Daley, staff-representative for AFSCME, the union for workers at the facility.

He, along with prison workers spoke during last week’s budget hearing on the conditions they continue to face on the job.

They say management has failed to create a safe work environment.

Ron Coleman has been a youth counselor at Lincoln Hills for 10 years. He says staff that write up youth for misconduct they become targets.

“Some youth threaten to rape and murder staff and their families. Female staff are especially targeting and experience sexual misconduct including exposure of genitals and masturbation with the purpose of tormenting them. This harassment is commonplace,” said Coleman.

Dave Tinker told the committee of increases in youth-on-youth fighting, use of force, sexual misconduct, and staff injuries.

“I’ve worked at Lincoln Hills School for 7 and a half years. Every day I face threats to my life, my co-workers lives, and safety of youth in our care,” said Tinker.

They support Governor Evers proposal to transition the facilities to an adult facility but fear the consequences of waiting until 2024 without changes within the facility.

“Our lives are at risk every day we go to work, please take action before it’s too late,” said Tinker.

In December, the court-ordered monitor found that conditions had been worsening, in part due to challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic.

The report found exhausted guards were more likely to restrain inmates. It also said inmates weren’t receiving enough programming and staff members feared for their safety.

A report from March said those conditions had improved, but there were still concerns regarding programming, use of force, restraints, and other issues, but “overall, there has been improvement and progress in several areas.”

The reports are part of a 2018 settlement of a federal lawsuit.

Katie Thoresen is WXPR's News Director/Vice President.
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