A federal judge recently affirmed what parents, whistleblowers, and juveniles placed at Lincoln Hills have been saying; the use of pepper spray, solitary confinement and restraints have been excessive.
During a hearing to determine if an injunction order should be issued to stop the practices, U.S. District Judge James Peterson found that there were severe problems at the state’s juvenile facility. Findings included corrections officers pepper spraying teens at the facility nearly 220 times in 2016. In another incident, a guard stepped on the neck of a teen inmate and then while the teen was handcuffed, threw the full weight of his knee onto the teen’s neck. A supervisor looked on and instead of stopping the excessive behavior, attempted to shield the behavior from the prison’s cameras.
Allegations of abuse and neglect have plagued Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls. The facilities have been under criminal investigation for the past 2 years. In 2016, I began holding numerous meetings with the Secretary and or staff of the Department of Corrections (DOC). My office started visiting Lincoln Hills regularly. We have bused in family members of the youth, community leaders, and resources to engage the juveniles around their behavior, trauma, and release. Data from the Juvenile Justice Information Center indicates that approximately 75 percent of these youth will return to the community. It’s our job to make sure they get the needed mental health, educational, and supportive services to aid their successful re-entry into society.
However, Judge Peterson noted, “The state just seems to have been moving very, very slowly in the face of widespread criticism of Lincoln Hills.”
I agree. Neither DOC nor Governor Scott Walker seems in any hurry to deal with the climate of indifference and maltreatment by some of the correctional staff. On June 25th, we actually saw the Walker administration close the internal affairs unit that uncovered the abuses of the teens. The governor also hasn’t done much about the concerns raised at Lincoln Hills, legislatively or in his 2017-19 budget. Walker’s responses have ranged from initially claiming ignorance of issues facing the facility, to an expression of being open to state assistance in getting a juvenile correctional facility built in Milwaukee, and then hedging on proposals to improve the situation.
It is, therefore, welcome news that the judge has ordered those involved two weeks to come up with a plan to reduce or eliminate these concerns. The judge stopped short of banning the practices entirely. The ACLU and the Juvenile Law Center, who filed the suit on behalf of the Lincoln Hills youth, will be invaluable in this process.
Legislatively, I am introducing the Juvenile Justice Bill of Rights Act. The act is a compilation of bills to address a ban of juvenile solitary confinement, insuring medication is administered or distributed by a licensed medical professional, transfer of Juvenile Corrections to the Department of Children and Families, and providing certain authority for Milwaukee County around licensing juvenile facilities. I have joined those who have said “Give us our kids back”. Understanding these juvenile facilities are located more than 200 miles from Milwaukee, it is time that we have a secure detention facility, free of a culture that supports abuse of our youth in our own community.