Before embarking on the contentious biennial budget Thursday, the Joint Finance Committee (JFC) first unanimously approved the building of a 50-bed expansion at the Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center.
“It’s a starting point in the closure of Lincoln Hills, and I think it is a great step towards reforming our juvenile justice system,” said co-chair Sen. Howard Marklein (R-Spring Green).
Currently the facility provides psychiatric evaluation and treatment for boys. The $66 million in borrowing approved by JFC will be used to open the first facility of its kind for girls in Wisconsin, according to Sen. Mary Felzkowski (R-Irma). Her district includes Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls juvenile detention facilities. The borrowing needs approval from the state’s Building Commission, but the unanimous JFC vote means that approval is more of a formality.
Calling Mendota and its successes “a really good kept secret.” Felzkowski praised the action.
“We’ll be able to help girls that have been probably in situations that you and I can’t possibly imagine,” Felzkowski said at a news conference before the vote. “The recidivism rate that Mendota has is amazing.
“We’re helping them to come back from bad situations, and really become productive members in our society,” she added. “It’s a win for the state. It’s a win for the taxpayers, but mainly it’s a win for these kids, that allows them to go out and have productive lives and quality lives after having come from some really serious situations.”
Lincoln Hills youth prison has been the source of lawsuits and an FBI investigation, centered on abuse of children and employees as well as numerous allegations of mismanagement. State law requires its closure by July 2021, which co-chair Rep. Mark Born (Beaver Dam) admitted was not going to happen. Democrats including Gov. Tony Evers have previously acknowledged the same.
Asked if the facility opening could close Copper Hills, which has just a small handful of girls in its care currently, Born replied: “That hasn’t been discussed yet. I guess it will be discussed with the Department of Corrections and Children and Families.”
Evers has also recommended building a youth detention center in Milwaukee to achieve the goal of space for enough juveniles to close Lincoln Hills. As required by the settlement of a lawsuit filed against the state over conditions at the juvenile prisons, a monitor provides regular reports on whether conditions are improving. According to AP, while the monitor’s Dec. 2020 report detailed deteriorating conditions that included staff fearing for its safety, a lack of programming and overuse of isolation and restraints, but the March 2021 report showed “vast improvement.”
Department of Health Services Secretary-designee Karen Timberlake, commended the committee’s action.
“Expanding the Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center to serve juvenile girls for the first time will allow equitable access to psychiatric treatment services and provide an expanded opportunity for the most troubled youth across our state to receive the rehabilitation supports needed to successfully reintegrate into their communities,” she said.
Youth at Mendota receive academic support, as well as group therapy for anger management and treatment related to issues such as substance abuse or a sexual offense, according to DHS’ website. The department information also notes that youth who are disruptive or do not respond to standard treatment at juvenile corrections facilities are transferred to Mendota and may even be transferred back and forth, depending on their mental health needs and security needs.
The MJTC is located on the grounds of the Mendota Mental Health Institute in Madison and currently has 29 beds to serve juvenile boys, according to DHS. The 50-bed addition would include 30 additional beds for boys and 20 beds for girls.
Timberlake also stressed the need for continued work by the Legislature on children’s mental health.
“In addition to making sure youth in the deepest end of the corrections system have treatment options, investments in community-based youth justice programming and a juvenile corrections facility in Milwaukee are still needed,” Timberlake added.