“Growing” juvenile corrections crisis

QUESTION: Who’s been in charge of the state’s 20 correctional institutions and roughly 22,000 inmates for the past six years and has never set foot inside a prison during that time?

ANSWER: Governor Scott Walker.  

Ever heard the expression that 90 percent of success is just showing up? It’s not just a good motto, it is kind of true.

Wisconsin Department of Correction’s $2.2 billion biennial budget of state tax dollars ranks in the top five of all state agencies. Based on that alone, you’d think it would warrant some attention.  

Governor Walker’s admission came during an interview to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. When asked about the mismanagement at Lincoln Hills, Wisconsin’s juvenile corrections facility, Governor Walker had no problem admitting he’s never visited Lincoln Hills. In fact, he admitted as Governor, he hasn’t visited a single prison.

I’m a hands-on legislator. When I found out about the violence at Lincoln Hills & Copper Lake juvenile correctional facilities, I didn’t just issue a press release or take a tour, I acted. The allegations were shocking; physical abuse of the youth by workers, kids fighting kids and even allegations of youth abusing workers. The news just kept getting worse. We later learned a youth was inadvertently given potentially dangerous doses of prescription medication. We need to take care of our people. Whether you are a youth, adult prisoner or worker, you witness and experience trauma inside our prisons and you carry that with you for the rest of your life.

Not only have I been to Lincoln Hills, I’ve led a group of people on a community-based visit to the facility. Once you set foot inside the facility, you can’t help but see the problems. Serious cultural competency challenges still exist. More than half the place is filled with Milwaukee kids, yet the facility is located in Irma, Wisconsin. It takes about four hours by bus just to get to Irma, Wisconsin. Most of the youth there are completely cut off from the positive influences of their family and community.

I live in the highest incarcerated zip code in the entire nation. I still live on the same block I grew up on. Many of the youth at Lincoln Hills are from my district; some of them are even from my neighborhood. I’ve got major complaints with how we handle juvenile corrections. First, no one should ever be abused. Second, the 65 percent recidivism rate alone proves Lincoln Hills isn’t a “corrections” institution.     

Governor Walker said investing in a smaller juvenile corrections facility in Milwaukee County isn’t a budget priority. As the ranking Senate Democrat on the state’s budget committee, I will work to change his mind. This isn’t just Milwaukee County’s problem. This is a state problem and we must all be part of the solution. Otherwise, we’re just part of the problem.

Data-driven strategies show smaller correctional facilities are more effective for youth. I have been so impressed with the work of the Department of Correction’s Grow Academy, which uses agriculture and sustainability as a tool to help reform youth and put them on a path to successful reentry into their community. It’s a model that works and something that we should replicate in Milwaukee County.

Stay tuned early next year. Several of my bills in my Legislative agenda feature reforms of our state’s juvenile corrections, including putting the Department of Health Services in charge of juvenile corrections, eliminating juvenile solitary confinement and improving trauma-informed care.

I’ve got my work cut out for me and I need your help. Join my efforts by emailing me. I’ll send out regular E-updates to keep you informed of my work. In the meantime, call Governor Walker at 608-266-1212 and urge him to visit Lincoln Hills.

Join Senator Taylor’s email list to learn more about what’s going on at the Capitol by emailing her at Sen.Taylor@legis.wi.gov. Or, connect with Senator Taylor on social media at Facebook.com/SenLenaTaylor, Twitter.com/SenTaylor or follow her at Instagram.com/Lena.Taylor.