Wisconsin Public Radio

County Proposal Replaces Youth Prison

Tells state it can renovate county Juvenile Justice Center to house children now in state prisons.

By , Wisconsin Public Radio - Jul 18th, 2019 11:18 am
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.

With the closure of Wisconsin’s troubled youth prisons delayed, Milwaukee County has submitted a new proposal to state officials to bring the youth housed there home sooner.

In March, Milwaukee County and three other counties submitted proposals to the state to build new juvenile youth facilities to replace the Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake prisons.

The $41.4 million Milwaukee proposal included remodeling areas at the Vel R. Phillips Juvenile Justice Center on Watertown Plank Road, which includes 22 existing beds and building a new “Secure Residential Care Center for Children and Youth” on the city’s northwest side.

On July 1, the county submitted a new proposal that would instead use the money to remodel and expand existing residential facilities and programs. This would include remodeling 22 beds at the Vel Phillips Center to serve as an assessment and crisis unit and collaborating with community partners to remodel two or three existing buildings to provide eight beds for girls and 24 beds for boys.

This model would allow for the youth currently at Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake to return to Milwaukee sooner and create a continuum of care that focuses on best practices to reduce recidivism, said Mary Jo Meyers, director of the Milwaukee County Department of Health and Human Services.

Meyers noted that Wisconsin’s juvenile correctional facilities predominantly house young people of color, who are currently placed hours away from their homes and communities.

“By capitalizing on existing facilities and resources, we will be able to provide the critical prevention and programming needed for our young people of color to have successful futures while also making our communities safer,” Meyers said.

Last year, state lawmakers approved a plan to close Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake by 2021, following years of allegations of inmate abuse and neglect.

Evers has said that timetable is too aggressive. Republican state Rep. Michael Schraa, R-Oshkosh, introduced a bill that keeps the prison open until July 1, 2021. The state Assembly and Senate approved the bill in June and it was signed by Evers July 1.

Brown, Dane and Racine counties have also submitted grant applications to build a new “Secure Residential Care Center for Children and Youth.” On July 22, the state Department of Correction’s grant committee will meet for the first time since applications were filed to begin reviewing the proposals.

Milwaukee County has been working to reform youth justice since 2011 through a program called Project Rise, which changes the focus from punishment to rehabilitation to create more positive outcomes for youth.

Meyers said how the youth are being treated at Copper Lake and Lincoln Hills will make it difficult for rehabilitating to take place. Since 2011, members of the Milwaukee County Health Department have been going to the youth prisons to work with the prisoners and meet with judges to see if the youth are ready to come back into the community for rehabilitation.

That work, as well as preventative outreach will continue, Meyers said.

“We know that when you have a child in any setting longer than six months you get diminishing returns and they have longer to learn new behaviors that are not productive for them,” Meyers said.

Listen to the WPR report here.

Milwaukee County Submits Proposal To Get Children Back Sooner From Youth Prison was originally published by Wisconsin Public Radio.

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