MADISON, Wis. – Juveniles would no longer be housed at a Wisconsin youth prison complex that's been the target of a federal investigation and multiple lawsuits alleging inmate abuse under an $80 million plan announced Thursday by Gov. Scott Walker.
The reorganization would change the Lincoln Hills-Copper Lake juvenile prisons into medium security adult prisons and open five smaller regional prisons for young offenders. An expanded mental health facility to house female prisons would also be built in Madison.
However, most of the juveniles wouldn't be moved until next year at the earliest, and there would be no immediate changes to operations at the current prisons. Democrats also were quick to note that the plan, which is subject to approval by the Republican-controlled Legislature, wouldn't be implemented until after voters decide whether to re-elect the Republican governor this fall.
Walker spokesman Tom Evenson said the governor wants to implement the changes in a "thoughtful and purposeful way," but would support moving more quickly if the Legislature wanted to do so this year.
Walker's handling of Wisconsin's juvenile prisons — which he's refused to visit and have been under FBI investigation for three years — had been a major point of attack by Democrats. The bipartisan plan could defuse a huge political liability for Walker as he seeks a third term in office.
Walker noted the plan was developed in consultation with leaders of his administration, state lawmakers, judges and local officials.
"Republicans and Democrats alike agree this is the way forward to reform juvenile corrections," Walker said.
Problems at the juvenile prisons have been developing for years. Workers say conditions started to deteriorate more rapidly in 2011, when two juvenile prisons near Milwaukee were closed and teens were consolidated at Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake, located about 30 miles (48 kilometers) north of Wausau.
The FBI launched a sweeping investigation in 2015 amid allegations of prisoner abuse, sexual assault, intimidation of witnesses and victims, strangulation and tampering with public records. The state Department of Justice sent dozens of agents into the prison in December 2016 after an inmate got his foot slammed in a door during a scuffle with guards and lost two toes.
No one has been charged.
Prison workers said conditions have worsened since a federal court order in July limited solitary confinement and pepper spray. One violent clash with juvenile inmates in October sent five workers to the hospital and a teacher was knocked out by a juvenile two weeks earlier.
While the reorganization plan won bipartisan support Thursday, some Democrats accused Walker of being motivated by political survival rather than what's best for the young inmates.
"It is a really transparent, cynical move by the governor," said Senate Democratic Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling. "The timing of this announcement is so transparent and does nothing to address the immediate safety concerns for staff and youth."
Shilling and other Democrats said Walker wasn't moving quickly enough. His plan doesn't call for opening the new regional prisons until 2019 at the earliest. The exact location of where those new prisons would be determined later, but one would be in northern Wisconsin. Others are expected to be in southeastern Wisconsin, closer to Milwaukee and Madison where most of the young inmates come from.
Walker said the state would be working with counties and others to immediately find locations for the regional prisons and plan for a smooth transition.
Some inmates would be moved to the Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center in Madison this fall, but an outline of the plan does not include details about when all of the roughly 160 inmates could be transferred.
Still, the move was hailed by the Juvenile Law Center and the American Civil Liberties Union, which sued the state over the treatment of inmates at the juvenile prisons.
"While this is a step in the right direction, we will continue to pay attention to how young people are treated while they are moved from the current facilities," said Larry Dupuis, legal director of ACLU of Wisconsin.
Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele, a Democrat, also supported the plan. He said the changes will help to transform Wisconsin's juvenile justice system into one that improves public safety and gives young offenders the chance at productive lives.