When the most serious juvenile offenders are incarcerated in Missouri, they’re not sent to one central, sprawling campus hours away from their families as they are in Wisconsin.
Rather, they’re housed in one of nearly three dozen small, regional facilities, typically close to home. Some of the facilities don’t even have fences, while others are nestled inside state parks.
And instead of mechanical restraints and solitary confinement, practices that have led to numerous federal lawsuits in Wisconsin, authorities in Missouri mostly rely on less restrictive means of treating problem teens.
As Wisconsin grapples with allegations of staff and inmates being harmed at the state’s juvenile correctional facility, some are pointing to the Missouri model as a guide to a more rational, effective youth correctional system.
“We know juveniles are better at home or with family or in the community more than anything else unless it’s a real threat to the community,” said Beth Huebner, a criminal justice and criminology professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis who studies how incarceration affects family relationships.
Even in cases where juvenile offenders must be separated from their communities because of the severity of their crimes, they are better served if their families are able to visit, she said.
The Missouri model differs markedly from how juvenile corrections are handled in Wisconsin, where lawmakers voted in 2011 to close youth prisons in the southeastern part of the state and house all of the state’s most serious juvenile offenders in a single facility in the North Woods.
Unlike Missouri, the State of Wisconsin is not responsible for housing young offenders committing less serious crimes.
And the lack of use of solitary confinement in Missouri stands in stark contrast to the deployment of solitary at Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls in Irma, north of Wausau.
While Wisconsin Department of Corrections officials have made more than two dozen small and big changes to how the state’s youth prison operates to address allegations of inmate abuse and unsafe conditions for staff, some lawmakers and juvenile justice experts say the state’s juvenile justice system is in need of a radical change.
“The youth are being abused and the staff aren’t feeling safe — it seems like a colossal failure to me,” said Laura Abrams, a professor at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs who specializes in juvenile justice.
In Missouri, juvenile offenders can be sentenced to one of more than 30 facilities throughout the state.
Those who commit the most serious crimes are placed in facilities of no more than 30 inmates, who are placed in treatment groups of no more than a dozen, according to the Missouri Department of Social Services, which oversees juvenile incarceration.
The regional system was created during the 1970s alongside a federal court order challenging conditions at one of the state’s large youth prisons. The juvenile correctional system was divided into five regions and included the construction of a number of smaller facilities.
Like Wisconsin’s youth prison, Missouri’s most-secure juvenile correctional facilities are surrounded by fences, and inmates receive educational services. Missouri inmates who have committed lesser property crimes are sent to facilities that don’t have fences or uniforms; some are located in state parks.
At many of the institutions, the living areas are similar to a college dorm, including bunk beds, dressers, and carpet, Huebner wrote in a 2013 analysis.
“Most facilities also have a larger congregate area with recreational activities,” she wrote. “Youth dress in street clothing and remain in small groups while in the facility. The institutions do not resemble high-security facilities and do not include perimeter razor wire or barred windows.”
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While there is little evidence to show the model results in lower recidivism, Huebner reported, she noted that staff in the Missouri facilities rarely use mechanical restraints and solitary confinement.
At the same time, Huebner found few assaults on inmates or staff were reported and no suicides occurred since the model took shape.
Distance major obstacle
Some similar amenities can be found at Lincoln Hills. The 800-acre campus is enveloped by woods and resembles a small college, with two large buildings at its entrance and center full of classrooms, offices for prison administrators, doctors and security staff.
Inside there’s a gymnasium for the Lincoln Hills Eagles basketball team, a computer lab, a garage for shop class, a small library and a cozy room for inmates to discuss with psychologists and each other the trauma they have experienced or inflicted on others.
An old chapel and a number of one-story small buildings fill the grounds, boundaries of which are marked with tall fences and gates designed to be difficult to climb. Inmates aren’t kept in prison cells for the most part, but small rooms with doors that only guards can unlock. Light decorations are allowed.
In the facility’s restrictive housing units, inmates are kept in cells with a bed, a toilet and a sink.
But there’s one feature that sets the Wisconsin youth prison apart: It’s nearly four hours away from where about half of its inmates live, a key obstacle to rehabilitation, experts say.
Nationwide, just 1 percent of youth prisons match the size of the Irma campus, federal data show.
Though fewer than 200 inmates are currently at the Wisconsin youth prison, the campus is big enough for 600 inmates — dimensions that can breed circumstances resulting in overworked staff and abused inmates, and an environment made worse the farther inmates are from their families, experts say.
“These large youth prison facilities are still having these types of issues because of the environment itself,” Abrams said. “There are fights between inmates ... there’s fear among staff ... it’s kind of an explosive environment.”
While experts and some lawmakers say moving to a more regional-based model could benefit the inmates, DOC officials say they already incorporate a number of features of the regional model sought by some.
Tristan Cook, spokesman for the DOC, said that while the Irma facility is one large campus, because of its layout, “youth spend much of their time interacting with the youth from their housing unit, which typically consists of 10–25 youth,” similar to Missouri’s system for the most serious offenders.
Cook also noted that Missouri state officials have a larger role in operating the juvenile justice system. In Wisconsin, the state houses only the most-serious offenders — beds for whom county governments rent. “Wisconsin has a limited role confined to housing youth who have committed very serious crimes, have repeated contacts with the juvenile justice system, have failed in a community-based setting, or received an adult conviction,” Cook said.
He rejected Abrams’ assessment that the state’s approach is failing because of the unsafe environment reported by staff and by inmates.
“I question how Dr. Abrams can make an informed, let alone accurate, evaluation of DOC’s juvenile corrections model without having ever visited Copper Lake School/Lincoln Hills School,” Cook said. “We take staff and youth safety concerns extremely seriously and are continuing to identify further enhancements based on input we have received.”