Milwaukee votes on Type 1 juvenile facility to replace Lincoln Hills

A step closer to closing troubled youth prison

By: - August 15, 2022 7:00 am

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

The saga of closing the Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake juvenile prisons inched a step closer to its conclusion last week. On Friday, the Milwaukee Common Council voted 12-1 to support initiating the process of building a new Type 1 facility in the city. Earlier this week, Gov. Tony Evers and the Department of Corrections (DOC) announced that a site had been selected on the city’s far northwestern end, along 76th Street and West Clinton Avenue.

According to weekly DOC population reports, the population at Lincoln Hills went up from 65 boys on Aug. 5, to 73 the day the council voted. The fresh figures serve as a stark reminder that plans to close the troubled facility have yet to be realized. In May, reports of chronic staffing shortages and disruption in programming, leading to youth being confined to their rooms for long stints, still plagued the facility. Staffing vacancies held at 36.7% overall, with higher numbers for individual positions like counselors.

At the start of the year, there were just 36 boys at Lincoln Hills. By May, there were 65 boys at Lincoln Hills, with another 13 girls still residing at the Copper Lake School for Girls. Earlier this year, Rep. Evan Goyke (D-Milwaukee), who favored closing Lincoln Hills,  said the facility had been in “a financial death spiral” for years.

While the population of boys at Lincoln Hills has grown, the population of girls at Copper Lake has remained consistent. Officials from the state public defender office’s juvenile unit said they feared that a decline in out-of-home placement options would lead to a population increase at Lincoln Hills.

Although Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake are located in Irma, many of the youth detained there are from the Milwaukee area. Officials say opening a new Type 1 facility would not only move the youth closer to home, but place them in a new facility better suited for their needs, free of the tainted name of Lincoln Hills.

Deciding exactly where the new facility would be opened has been a challenge. Plans to open a new facility in Milwaukee back in 2019 were scuttled due to community pushback. The more recent plans initially considered the current location of the Felmers O. Chaney Correctional Center. Again segments of the community pushed back, this time because the correctional center is one of Milwaukee’s only adult re-entry facilities for men. The newly selected location in the northwestern corner of the city took the correctional center off the table. Designed for 100 men, the facility currently has a population of 79, outnumbering the growing numbers of boys at Lincoln Hills.

Rep. David Bowen (D-Milwaukee) was pleased when he first heard the announcement from Evers’ office. “The new site is within the community, was selected with insight from community members, brings these children closer to home, will allow us to ensure that the youth who will be housed in this facility will receive the best possible care, and additionally helps preserve existing correctional resources like the Felmers O. Chaney Correctional Center,” Bowen said in a statement released prior to the council vote.

During the Friday common council meeting, Ald. Robert Bauman noted that the vote merely satisfies a statutory requirement. Additional meetings will be required to hash out all zoning issues, and all other considerations the city would make in such a situation. Ald. Marina Dimitrijevic added that there will be many opportunities for the public to continue to weigh in. Mayor Cavalier Johnson applauded the developments. “If we expect our kids who have lost their way to be rehabilitated for successful and safe re-entry into our community, then we can’t ship them three and a half hours away from family, resources, and programming that is best equipped to help them in doing so,” Johnson said in a Tweet.

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Isiah Holmes
Isiah Holmes

Isiah Holmes is a journalist and videographer, and a lifelong resident of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Holmes' video work dates back to his high school days at Wauwatosa East High, when he made a documentary about the local police department. Since then, 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. He was also featured in the 2018 documentary The Chase Key, and was the recipient of the Sierra Club Great Waters Group 2021 Environmental Hero of the Year award. The Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council also awarded Holmes its 2021-2022 Media Openness Award for using the open records laws for investigative journalism. Holmes was also a finalist in the 2021 Milwaukee Press Club Excellence in Journalism Awards alongside the rest of the Wisconsin Examiner's staff. The Silver, or second place, award for Best Online Coverage of News was awarded to Holmes and his colleague Henry Redman for an investigative series into how police responded to the civil unrest and protests in Kenosha during 2020. Holmes was also awarded the Press Club's Silver (second-place) award for Public Service Journalism for articles focusing on police surveillance in Wisconsin.

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