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Closure of Controversial WI Youth Prisons on Horizon

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports the Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake youth prisons, located in Irma, will be repurposed into a new adult facility.
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The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports the Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake youth prisons, located in Irma, will be repurposed into a new adult facility.

Wisconsin legislators passed a bipartisan agreement this month to build a replacement for the controversial Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake youth prisons, a move one advocate said should come with a new approach to youth justice.

The bill allocates nearly $42 million to construct a high-security facility in Milwaukee County.

Erica Nelson, advocacy director of the group Kids Forward, said the new facility should be counterbalanced with community investments to keep kids out of the system. Nelson stated she hopes, by reducing admissions to the prison, it eventually will lose its high-security designation.

"Make prevention, intervention and diversion as much of a priority for our youth as building a new facility," Nelson urged.

A bill setting an initial closure date of January 2021 for the facilities was signed into law in 2018, after numerous reports of child abuse and mismanagement at the two youth prisons. The state missed the goal because, while lawmakers passed a bill to close the facilities, it took them until this session to approve funding for a replacement. Gov. Tony Evers has indicated he will likely sign the measure.

A new report from The Sentencing Project indicated young people in the U.S. were locked up in juvenile facilities nearly 250,000 times in 2019, and Black and Latino kids were 50% more likely to face incarceration than their white counterparts.

Josh Rovner, senior advocacy associate for The Sentencing Project and the report's author, said locking kids up, even briefly, can have long-term consequences.

"For one, there's self-harm," Rovner pointed out. "Children are at a much higher risk of suicide having been detained. Not surprisingly, kids who are detained are much less likely to graduate from high school."

While the new youth prison's location in Milwaukee County is not finalized, one proposal is for the current site of the Felmers O. Chaney Correctional Center, which provides prerelease, reentry support for men exiting the carceral system.

Several social-justice advocacy groups have pushed back against the location, arguing the center provides an important service to the community.

Jonah Chester is Wisconsin Public Radio's 2022-2023 Mike Simonson Memorial Investigative Reporting Fellow embedded in the Wisconsin Watch newsroom. He most recently worked at Public News Service, a national radio news service, where he covered Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana. He previously produced the 6 O'Clock News at WORT 89.9 FM in Madison, where he won numerous awards from the Milwaukee Press Club and Wisconsin Broadcasters Association for his reporting on issues in Dane County and south-central Wisconsin.
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