Jeramey Jannene
Eyes on Milwaukee

New Youth Prison Wins Key Endorsement

Despite objections from neighbors, zoning committee supports new facility on northwest side.

By - Jan 10th, 2023 05:57 pm
Proposed youth corrections facility at 7930 W. Clinton Ave. Rendering by BWBR Architects.

Proposed youth corrections facility at 7930 W. Clinton Ave. Rendering by BWBR Architects.

A proposed youth prison for Milwaukee’s Northwest Side, a replacement for the troubled Lincoln Hills facility, gained a key endorsement Tuesday.

After more than three hours of debate, the Zoning, Neighborhoods & Development Committee unanimously recommended approval of a zoning change to enable the facility’s development. The full Common Council will consider the proposal on Jan. 17, but will not hold a public hearing.

Several people that live near the proposed facility testified against it, arguing it would have a negative impact on the neighborhood, while many involved in the youth justice system spoke of the need to develop a facility in the Milwaukee area and improve rehabilitative care.

The 32-bed facility would be located on a 6.6-acre site, 7930 W. Clinton Ave., at the end of a dead-end road located northwest of the intersection of N. 76th St. and W. Good Hope Rd. It could open as soon as late 2025, 10 years after the 400-bed, Wausau-area Lincoln Hills facility gained national notoriety for allegations of abuse of youth by staff, staff shortages and other problems. The state has paid out more than $25 million in settlements as a result.

“Despite the stigma of a correctional facility, we are committed to being good neighbors and have the experience to maintain our facility on Clinton Avenue,” said Wisconsin Department of Corrections (DOC) Secretary Kevin Carr. He said the Lincoln Hills facility, now well below its capacity, is still far too large and the 32-bed setup was the ideal configuration.

Additionally, Carr said the facility would keep youth closer to home, enable the hiring of a more diverse workforce and improve rehabilitation outcomes by providing better programming and therapy for both inmates and their families.

A proposal for a decentralized, statewide system was ultimately adopted in 2018 and $41.8 million in funding for the Milwaukee-area replacement approved in April 2022. A court-ordered monitor now reports on conditions at the facilities. Carr became head of the agency in 2019.

The street, which would see its lighting upgraded by the state, is lined by commercial and industrial businesses. The property, once used as a vehicle emissions testing facility, is bordered to the west by a railroad line and buffered from neighboring properties by a wooded area.

The DOC would construct an approximately 72,000-square-foot building. At the rear, a 16-foot-tall wall would enclose an outdoor recreation area. A ring road would wrap the building, with a six-foot-tall, steel fence enclosing the portion of the road that borders the secured area.

“The goal is for the facility to communicate the aesthetic of an educational institution rather than a correctional environment,” said project architect Courtney Cooper of Minnesota-based BWBR Architects.

But neighbors don’t like it. Many are frustrated that the facility is being advanced while the area council seat is vacant. Chantia Lewis was removed from office in July for felony misconduct in office.

“Overwhelmingly, people in my district feel strongly opposed to this Type 1 Facility in our district,” said candidate Amber Danyus, one of eight candidates running for the seat. Her viewpoint was echoed by two other candidates, Cherie Ray and Russell Antonio Goodwin, Sr. They called for, at minimum, a delay until after the April election. Others called for a referendum.

A handful of residents that live within a couple hundred yards of the proposed facility offered strong testimony. “I am here to tell you they have not talked to the residents,” said Carolyn Allen, who has appeared at multiple public meetings opposing the proposal. “This is a loophole. They know we do not have an alderperson.”

“Information is being withheld from us and it’s not fair,” said Margaret Thorn. She said those being housed at the facility would be violent offenders, not car thieves.  “Why not put this on the ballot?”

When asked by Alderwoman Marina Dimitrijevic what changes would make the project more acceptable, Thorn said there weren’t any. “Not in my neighborhood,” she said.

Project supporters spoke of the need to act.

Sharlen Moore, co-founder of Urban Underground and a longtime youth justice advocate, testified in support of the proposed location and the failings of the current setup. “We have to figure something out. We have to put them somewhere,” said Moore while fighting back tears.

Nonprofit leader Shannon Ross, who spent 17 years incarcerated in the state, spoke of the need to improve care, including creating a facility accessible to family and friends.

Sylvester Jackson, who also was previously incarcerated and now works to support criminal justice reform, said it was important that the state invest in its youth and provide a pathway to redemption.

“We support and ask you to support this site, not because we love incarceration… but because we are concerned about the youth… they are all redeemable and worthy of care and attention and there are no throwaways,” said pastor Joseph Ellwanger, one of many representatives of Milwaukee Inner-city Congregations Allied for Hope that spoke in favor.
“I think this location is suitable, appropriate and in the public interest,” said Alderman Robert Bauman. He moved approval.

Ald. Scott Spiker said he understood why the area council representative might oppose it. But with or without their objection, he said he would still support the proposal as he believes it is good for the city. He said he didn’t think there was a location in the city that wouldn’t generate a hotly-contested hearing.

“We have listened to you. We’ve heard you. We see you. This is a difficult decision,” said Dimitrijevic. She said it was unusual that the city would even be asked to weigh in on the decision, but Wisconsin Act 185 requires city approval.

“I will admit I am nervous about this vote because I do not want to support the status quo. The status quo is not working,” said Dimitrijevic. Carr pledged that decentralizing the system is anything but the status quo and his focus was on reducing the number of offenders needing long-term incarceration.

Ald. Russell W. Stamper, II said he was moved to vote for the zoning change based on the testimony of those who were formerly incarcerated. “It does have to go somewhere and where they put it is the most secluded place available,” he said.

Committee chair Michael Murphy expressed frustration with the outreach process from the state, noting that a parole office was recently expanded by his house and he only learned about it when a constituent asked what a construction site was for. “There needs to be better outreach to the community,” said the alderman.

The five council members all voted for the proposal. The 12-member council will next vote on the zoning change before it goes to Mayor Cavalier Johnson for a signature.

There are currently 60 boys at Lincoln Hills and nine girls at the adjacent, girls-only Copper Lake facility, said Carr. The new Clinton Ave. facility would be only for boys. Milwaukee County pays more than $1,000 per day to send offenders to the two facilities, but could save money and keep more individuals closer to home if new facilities are developed.

Most youth offenders, said the DOC officials, do not spend their entire sentence at a Type 1 facility and instead transfer to a state-financed, county-run “Type 2” facility or a lower-level, county-owned detention center like the Vel R. Phillips Juvenile Justice Center. Along with the state’s push for this new Type 1 facility, Milwaukee County is also pursuing the expansion of the Phillips facility.

Renderings and Site


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