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Wisconsin's youth prison

The entrance to the state's youth prison in Irma is decorated for the holidays in this 2016 file photo.

I’m in no position to know whether the state’s youth prison in Irma should be closed or might someday be able to rehabilitate inmates without putting them and the people who work with them in danger.

Good thing I don’t have any business making that decision.

For those elected officials who have decided to make the Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls their business, a little more research and a little less posturing is in order.

On Tuesday, Republican Gov. Scott Walker ordered the Department of Corrections secretary to appoint an interim superintendent for the facility. He also channeled a bit of President Donald Trump’s disdain for the First Amendment by blaming an uptick in inmate attacks on staff at the prison, in part, on “repeated media reports” that have emboldened the facility’s inmates.

What Walker doesn’t appear to have done is spend any time at the prison, with the prison’s inmates and staff. And that appears to be true of the vast majority of the state’s 132 lawmakers, too, according to Department of Corrections visitor logs — at least since allegations of abuse against inmates and more recent counter allegations of inmate attacks on guards started surfacing within the last two years.

The DOC could confirm 11 Democratic and three Republican lawmakers visited during that time. Among them was Democratic Rep. Chris Taylor, who started circulating a bill this week that would close the prison in a year.

Sen. Tom Tiffany and Rep. Mary Felzkowski, Republicans whose districts include the prison, didn’t show up on the DOC list, but Tiffany told me he “toured the facility, including residents’ rooms” and “took the time to speak with staff and residents.”

Felzkowski said she has “visited Lincoln Hills several times while in office” and “taken tours of other prisons to better understand DOC operations.”

This doesn’t mean Taylor should try to close the prison or that it was right or appropriate for Tiffany and Felzkowski to call on a federal judge to reverse an order limiting the prison’s guards’ use of solitary confinement, shackles and pepper spray. But at least they’re speaking from some basis of direct experience about a workplace of the sort that you really need some direct experience to understand.

Working in a youth prison obviously isn’t anything like working in a bank or on a construction site or at a newspaper or at the vast majority of other workplaces where customers almost never attack employees and employees almost never physically restrain customers.

I’ve never worked in one, but I have worked in a school for youth with serious emotional and behavior problems where students were regularly violent and staff regularly used physical restraints and put children in lockable, padded time-out rooms.

It is, by nature, a messy and morally fraught business where any one action might look like child abuse to some and a necessary consequence to others. Maybe that’s why investigations into the prison have been dragging on for almost three years.

Lawmakers can wait for the outcome of that work before acting. But if they don’t, they should know what they’re acting on.

Contact Chris Rickert at 608-252-6198 or, as well as on Facebook and Twitter (@ChrisRickertWSJ). His column appears Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday.


Chris Rickert is the urban affairs reporter and SOS columnist for the Wisconsin State Journal.