‘Restorative justice,’ not new youth detention facilities needed, advocates say

By: - July 17, 2019 7:00 am
Lincoln Hills detention facility

Lincoln Hills, a detention facility the state has ordered closed by 2021. (Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin Department of Corrections)

Plans to close the Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake youth detention facilities in Irma, have quickly evolved since Gov. Tony Evers took office, but the process hasn’t been without controversy. Many are questioning why the state is paying millions to sustain what Sharlen Moore, co-founder of Urban Underground, calls “failed mechanisms.”

Moore urges a conversation about “restorative justice” rather than more detention centers. The Milwaukee resident, an appointed member of the Juvenile Corrections Grant Committee, stresses the importance of providing credible mentors, job opportunities and youth internships — as better investments. It is through such an approach, she told the Wisconsin Examiner, “that a young person learns from the harm they’ve created.

“Let’s stop looking at these failed models,” she said. The criticism comes as the state is rushing to build a new facility and renovate others by the time Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake close in 2021. Brown, Dane, Racine, and Milwaukee counties have asked for grants to renovate existing facilities or build new ones.

A notorious history

Lincoln Hills was opened in 1970, and housed both male and female youth between 1972 and 1994. In 2011, Copper Lake opened next door to house young women. Over the years, the two facilities have become notorious examples of the problems with youth incarceration.

A youth in solitary confinement. (Photo courtesy of ACLU-Wisconsin)

In January 2017, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a class action lawsuit alleging the teens in both facilities were abused with lengthy and repeated stays in solitary confinement, pepper sprayed and chained to tables. A federal judge eventually ordered operational changes, and certified “juvenile inmates” as their own class. Two women from Iowa held in Copper Lake were also awarded $4 million by the state of Wisconsin to settle lawsuits alleging abuses they experienced as 16-year-olds, the Des Moines Register reported last month.

The two facilities were ordered closed by the legislature in March 2018, and the legislature has provided $80 million for counties to build new facilities or renovate existing ones. Closing them gives the state and counties an opportunity to re-think juvenile justice.

The state will construct a “Type 1” facility by 2021 in the city of Milwaukee for more serious youth offenders from Lincoln Hills. WSAW 7 reported in May that Brown County is also considering building a Type 1 facility, though more announcements are to come. Another state-run facility is planned for Hortonia in Outagamie County. 

Chosen sites ‘detrimental to the community’

In March, two potential locations for the Milwaukee site — 6101 W. Mill Road and 6600 Teutonia Ave. near Mill Road — drew widespread criticism from residents because they were near businesses and a middle school.

“No alderpersons had ever been contacted regarding the plan to open facilities in their district,” said Marva Herndon, co-founder of Women Informed. “As a resident of this district, I consider the locations detrimental to the community as well.” 

Herndon points to the nearby “struggling business district,” and saturation of group homes across Milwaukee’s predominantly African American north-side, as further compounding factors. By July, officials had decided to build near the Teutonia/Mill Road area. 

“There’s all sorts of theories why they selected the Teutonia location,” Moore told the Wisconsin Examiner. She noted that this location “was never on the list,” recommended by the Study Committee. Instead, the committee had suggested state property. The city of Milwaukee owns the Teutonia location, which is beside the police academy. 

Milwaukee County, WISN 12 reports, will seek $42 million from the state to renovate the Vel R. Phillips Youth Detention Center in Wauwatosa. County Executive Chris Abele expressed hope that the re-design will help Milwaukee County become “the new national model” for youth justice. Another $59 million from the state will expand the Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center in Madison. After years of scandals surrounding Lincoln Hills, the Department of Corrections emphasizes that renovations to existing facilities will have a focus on reintegrating youth back into the community. Attention is also being focused on reducing the incarceration feel of the compounds.

Money going to the wrong place

The state-run facility coming to Milwaukee County will also operate on a new juvenile justice model. Early plans suggest the facility will be designed to resemble a school from the outside. Moore, however, feels money is still going in the wrong place. “No matter how much nicer we make it,” she told Wisconsin Examiner, “we know that those are failed mechanisms.”

She wonders why funds are “funneled” into renovated prisons rather than preventive measures so kids aren’t incarcerated in expensive compounds in the first place. “We’re talking about millions and millions of dollars to build these spaces,” she said. “We can put that right back into the community.” Internships, mentoring programs, job opportunities, “there’s a plethora of things we can put more resources into that support families.”

Herndon, who sits on the MPS Board of School Directors, echoed similar feelings. “Milwaukee’s public school district has been underfunded for over 20 years,” she said. Despite Evers allocating $65 million in the budget toward schools, she says there are still shortfalls. 

“Even in this year’s budget, the state failed to provide public schools with adequate special needs funding, which would directly impact the ability to service these students.”

She also fears that partnerships between the Milwaukee Public School District and these facilities “could potentially place additional financial strain on the district.”

Reforms since ACLU lawsuit

A majority of the youth who’ll find themselves in the Teutonia Type 1 facility are also from the area. While the Evers administration has stated its priority is “getting kids out of Lincoln Hills and closer to home,” critics point out many of the girls in Copper Lake will go to the distant Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center in Madison. According to a fact sheet from Youth Justice Milwaukee, another group Moore is affiliated with, “60% of youth committed to facilities in Wisconsin were from Milwaukee County.”

Molly Vidal, of the Department of Corrections, told the Wisconsin Examiner the Type 1 facility is in the design phase. In the meantime, Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake are experiencing reforms following the ACLU lawsuit and state and federal investigations. A court-appointed monitor for Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake noted “improvements” at the facilities since the lawsuit.

Vidal says today, the average day for youth at Lincoln Hills varies depending on their needs. “Youth take classes, participate in therapy groups (DBT, music therapy, art therapy, etc.), have recreation time (including flag football, bike riding, yoga), and participate in Youth Advisory Councils.” She says those headed to the new facilities, “will continue to be provided trauma-informed, evidence-based services and supports.”

While new juvenile detention facilities are planned in the short-term, the future will need a different approach, Moore says.

“We need to look at what’s going to work well for our community.” She says Lincoln Hills, Copper Lake and any new facilities “are a model.” She then adds, “And again, it doesn’t work.”


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Isiah Holmes
Isiah Holmes

Isiah Holmes is a journalist and videographer, and a lifelong resident of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His writing has been featured in Urban Milwaukee, Isthmus, Milwaukee Stories, Milwaukee Neighborhood News Services, Pontiac Tribune, the Progressive Magazine, Al Jazeera, and other outlets.