Op Ed

Lincoln Hills Closed. Now What’s Needed?

Not a replacement facility. Community-based alternatives work much better, more cheaply.

By - Aug 27th, 2018 03:28 pm
Lincoln Hills School and Copper Lake School. Photo from the Wisconsin Department of Corrections.

Lincoln Hills School and Copper Lake School. Photo from the Wisconsin Department of Corrections.

We were sick and tired of watching the young people from our communities – the majority of whom are youth of color – be locked up far away from their families in a prison known for abusing and traumatizing young people. We were sick and tired of hearing horrible stories of children being pepper sprayed and locked in solitary confinement, of violent physical assaults so violent they required a young man’s toes to be amputated. We were sick and tired of living in a state that incarcerates African American youth 15 times more than white youth and ranks among the five least-equitable in the country.

Last year, we launched Youth Justice Milwaukee, a campaign to improve Wisconsin’s juvenile justice system by advocating for community alternatives to incarceration. Earlier this year, we accomplished a major victory when the legislature voted to close Lincoln Hills, but the hard work of bringing true justice to our communities is far from over.

For years, youth from Milwaukee have been sent to Lincoln Hills, but now, the state is preparing to close the youth prison and give counties more responsibility to rehabilitate young people. Milwaukee County officials have an opportunity to show the rest of the state what justice for young people should look like. As citizens, we have a responsibility – and our elected officials in Milwaukee County have a responsibility – to create customized programs that meet our young people’s needs.

Right now, Milwaukee officials and community leaders are meeting to decide what should happen to our young people after Lincoln Hills closes.

The debate is about whether to put more money into building another big brick-and-mortar facility that keeps youth locked up, which we know doesn’t work, or whether to invest in community-based alternatives like intensive mentoring, education, job training and other programs that provide youth a chance to repair the harm they’ve caused. And while it’s true that these programs are sometimes provided inside facilities, accessing the support services young people need shouldn’t require getting locked up. From where I stand, the choice is clear.

As far as youth prisons go, Lincoln Hills is notorious, but not unique. Like all youth prisons, it is ineffective, it is costly, and it is abusive. That’s why it’s time for a different approach: let’s fund community-based alternatives rather than continuing to waste money building more of the same failed institutions of the past. Locking our children up does irreparable psychological and social damage to their growth and development, making them less likely to heal and become productive members of society. At the same time, there is clear evidence that focusing on rehabilitation programs and prevention leads to more success in keeping young people out of the juvenile justice system and would help reduce the chances that they return to prison in the future.

Given what we know, why would Milwaukee County want to pour more money into another brick-and-mortar youth prison? Instead, let’s choose alternatives that help heal youth and address the root problems they are facing. This way, Milwaukee can set an example of what justice should look like for the entire state – and even the country. That is only possible if our leaders remain focused on making sure young people can leave Lincoln Hills as quickly as possible and if they refuse to build more youth prisons and locked-door facilities.

We can successfully rehabilitate young people while keeping our communities safe, but only if Milwaukee officials listen to people who have experienced firsthand our broken justice system: no one knows how to fix our broken system better than the young people and the communities who have been through it—so bringing our voices to the table is an immediate and critical component of meaningful reform. There is time to realize this vision, but to do so, the communities most impacted need a seat at the table and a voice in the process.

Truly closing Lincoln Hills means more than closing a single abusive youth prison; it means refusing to open any more youth prisons and investing in what we know works. This is our opportunity as a community, as Milwaukee, to show Wisconsin what justice really means.

Sharlen Moore is the co-founder of Youth Justice Milwaukee.

Categories: Politics, Public Safety

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