The state Department of Corrections four years ago settled a class-action lawsuit over the inhumane conditions at youth prisons of Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake, about 170 miles north of Madison in the Lincoln County community of Irma.
The department vowed to treat young people better and submit to regular oversight from a federal court-appointed monitor. Though improvements have been made over the years, conditions at these facilities should be sounding alarms.
In early 2017, nine young people filed a federal lawsuit in federal court on behalf of all of the young people at Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake. These young people challenged cruel treatment, including painful pepper spray, extended solitary confinement, humiliating strip searches, and oppressive arm and leg restraints.
The ACLU of Wisconsin, Juvenile Law Center and Quarles and Brady, as pro bono counsel, represent all the plaintiffs in the facilities.
In June 2018, we filed a proposed settlement of the case with the court, which restricted or eliminated these punitive practices. While closing the facilities remains the true solution and ultimate goal — for the state as well as the young people — it is critical that the state and counties take immediate steps to expand diversion programs and alleviate the pressure inside Lincoln Hills.
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This is particularly critical because recent increases in the population coupled with staffing shortages threaten to undermine the progress that has been made, especially with solitary confinement.
The monitor’s report filed in federal court recently reveals conditions at Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake are worse than they have been in years. The settlement prohibits solitary confinement in almost all circumstances because of the severe harm it causes.
But due to a lack of staff, the facilities are increasingly reverting to what is called “operational confinement” — locking young people alone in their cells, at times for as long as 21 hours a day, even when those young people have not misbehaved.
The report explains that this “is the first time the monitor reports that there are inadequate staffing levels on the living units, which presents very significant problems for youth and staff,” and the “current staffing situation is having a profound negative impact on daily operations.”
These harmful increases in solitary confinement compound other concerns young people have consistently raised over the past four years, including inadequate teacher staffing and other educational problems. Other problems are a lack of special education services, a shortage of social workers, inadequate programs and activities, staff using excessive force and some staff using racial slurs, according to the young people.
Notably, young people of color make up the majority of youth in the facilities. Young people also describe the simple pain and alienation of being hundreds of miles from their homes and families.
These harsh and stressful conditions are paid for by Wisconsin taxpayers. It costs more than $1,150 a day — more than $400,000 per year — to house a single child at Lincoln Hills. That’s a shockingly high price for the bleakly limited services provided.
While we are heartened that the Legislature has taken long-overdue steps toward closing Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake for good. This will not happen fast enough. As we work toward that goal, we need to reduce the stress on Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake today by expanding and funding diversion programs Wisconsin should have invested in long ago.
Wisconsin has far better ways to spend $400,000 per youth per year. Diversion programs and other community-based services provide positive, targeted interventions designed to address individual needs without subjecting teenagers to the harms of incarceration or the damaging effects of a juvenile or criminal court record. And peer-reviewed research shows that diversion programs are far more effective at reducing recidivism.
For example, more funding for program such as the Milwaukee County Accountability Program (MCAP) is needed. The program has a months-long waitlist for the mentoring and other positive support the program offers, and for other intervention programs. Policymakers should provide funding now to expand and fund these programs across the state, and to provide opportunities for young people of all genders.
The recent monitor’s report should be a call to action for policymakers, judges and all who care about Wisconsin’s young people. They cannot wait while the crisis continues to mount.
Luckily, the solution is right before our eyes. We need to meet the needs of young people through support in the community.
Burdick is a senior attorney for the Juvenile Law Center, and Rotker is a senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Wisconsin.