Gov. Tony Evers said Thursday the closure of the troubled Lincoln Hills youth prison in northern Wisconsin is unlikely to happen by the July 2021 deadline prescribed by law if state officials don’t provide a significant boost in funding for a juvenile justice system overhaul.
In an interview with the Wisconsin State Journal, Evers said the likelihood of the state breaching the deadline — already pushed back once — to close the youth prison is “pretty strong.”
“As far as closing it without some major increase in funding, it’s going to be tough,” Evers said. “Clearly we have some money in the budget but it’s not enough.”
Evers said there’s enough money in the budget to begin drawing down the Lincoln Hills population, but that closing down the entire facility by the deadline is a long shot.
The governor’s comments, which come nearly a year after he took office, are the latest sign that shuttering the youth prison marred by allegations of abuse presents a formidable challenge.
The problems at Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls go back to at least 2012, and include allegations of sexual and physical assault against inmates and an inadequate response by prison officials.
For example, in November 2015, a youth inmate had some of his toes amputated after a staff member shoved him into his room and slammed the door, severely injuring his foot. In December of that year, as many as two dozen law enforcement officers raided the youth prison as part of the probe into alleged abuse of minors and staff and attempts to conceal it.
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After a years-long investigation, the U.S. Attorney’s Office filed no charges against prison staff, but the state of Wisconsin has settled lawsuits brought by inmates and human rights groups costing more than $25 million. In January 2018, then-Gov. Scott Walker, who had previously closed another youth prison to consolidate teen inmates at Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake, called for the facilities to be closed.
Lawmakers in March of that year passed a law ordering the youth prison to close by January 2021 and implementing an overhaul of the youth corrections system by building new state and county-run facilities.
Evers earlier this summer signed a budget, largely authored by Republicans, that directs $80 million to counties, $47 million to the state and $59 million in borrowing to expand the Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center. Evers had requested more. He wanted up to $115 million for state-run facilities, $100 million for county facilities and $59 million for the Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center.
Over the past year, court-ordered progress reports have shown continued improvement in conditions at Lincoln Hills.
Meanwhile, the committee tasked with advancing proposals from counties for their facilities has faced turbulence. Proposals from the handful of counties that want to build the juvenile facilities — Dane, Milwaukee, Racine and Brown — seek $30 million more than what’s budgeted yet fall 52 to 66 beds short of the nearly 180 beds needed to close Lincoln Hills.
On Thursday, Evers said he’s unsure where additional funds might come from, though he said making cuts, issuing additional bonding authority or changing deadlines for other major state projects could be options.
The Legislature’s Republican-controlled Joint Finance Committee is currently tasked with reviewing the counties’ proposals. The leaders of that committee, Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, and Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, haven’t yet approved the county projects, nor have they said whether additional funding will be required.
Spokesmen for Nygren and Darling didn’t respond to a request seeking comment.