Following more than two years of stories about inmate abuse, staffing shortages, and other violence at the facilities, Governor Scott Walker has outlined a plan to close the state’s troubled Lincoln Hills and Cooper Lake youth prisons and move inmates to smaller, more regional facilities. Lincoln Hills would be reopened as a medium security facility for housing adult offenders.
Located north of Wausau in Lincoln County, both facilities have been the subject of state and federal investigations, numerous negative news stories, and civil rights lawsuits that have challenged the techniques used to control the inmate population and the conditions young offenders are living in. Walker has insisted for months that he is confident the Department of Corrections could handle the ongoing situation at Lincoln Hills, and has declined to visit staff there.
Walker’s plan unveiled Wednesday would turn Lincoln Hills into an adult facility, while moving juvenile offenders to five smaller, regional facilities located around the state. It also calls for expanding the juvenile treatment program at the Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center in Madison.
“By moving from one facility to several facilities across the state, and placing a focus on mental health and trauma-informed care, we believe this plan will improve long-term outcomes for both juveniles and our staff working at these facilities,” Walker said in a statement.
The $80 million proposal would largely not be implemented until after the 2019 state budget is passed, after Walker faces reelection to a third term in office.
While the proposal boasts bipartisan support, many Democrats were almost immediately skeptical of the timing of the announcement.
Senate Democratic Leader Jennifer Shilling (D-La Crosse) called the proposal a “hollow campaign gimmick” in a press release, arguing that Walker is only acting now because it helps his political ambitions. “The timing of this announcement is so transparent and does nothing to address the immediate safety concerns for staff and youth. The counselors and youth need help, and the only person who is in a position to do anything refuses to step foot in the facility,” she argued.
State Representative Dana Wachs (D-Eau Claire), one of several Democratic candidates for governor looking to challenge Walker in November, argued the governor has had the “opportunity to do the right thing time and time again, but he only caved after the pressure became too much.”
State Senator Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee), who has long called for action to address concerns about the facilities, said Walker was a “day late and dollar short” on addressing the issue. “After years of neglect, and ignoring the many legislative proposals that I introduced to bring relief to juveniles and correctional officers, Governor Walker is just now getting to do his job right in time for another election bid,” Taylor said in a statement. “As governor, he has failed to visit a single correctional or juvenile facility in his entire tenure. It’s clear where is priorities are, and that this is just another attempt to play politics and get this scandal, recently confirmed by his former Corrections Secretary, off his back.”