June 15, 2016

Tough love for kids at Lincoln Hills

Senator Lena C. Taylor

I’m a put up or shut up kind of Senator.

I believe in being a public servant, not a politician. The difference is who you are in it for. The politician is in it for themselves. A public servant is in it for the people.

Unlike legislators who were made aware of the Lincoln Hills scandal and didn’t act until the news broke, I took this scandal seriously. So, 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 kids by workers, kids fighting kids and even allegations of youth abusing workers.

When I learned of the scandal, I got the Secretary of the Department of Corrections on the phone that same day and demanded answers. Senator Fred Risser (D-Milwaukee) and I called for the Senate Judiciary Committee to hold a hearing into the issue. I also wrote legislation to take juvenile corrections out of the Department of Corrections where the kids are treated like prisoners and move it to the Department of Children and Families, where they will be treated like troubled youth. Just last week, I proposed a budget motion to match Milwaukee County’s $500,000 to bring Milwaukee kids back home. Unfortunately, neither Governor Walker nor legislative Republicans are interested in legislative solutions to this crisis.

That’s why I started community-based visits to Irma Wisconsin. I made my first trip up north in January. I didn’t go alone. They say it takes a village to raise a child. So what do you do for the kids the village has failed? I brought with me resources for those kids. We met the kids, we looked them in the eye and we listened to them. We gave them books to read, we brought them motivational speakers who have walked in their shoes and we taught them how spoken word poetry and writing can help them get their feelings out.

I learned many kids in Lincoln Hills don’t think about their own future. Just imagine being a teenager and getting swept up in the wrong crowd. Then suddenly, your life changes when you are sentenced to prison hundreds of miles from home where many of the very people who are supposed to help you turn your life around can’t even relate to you. They feel like their world is crumbling around them. That’s why I asked them a seemingly simple question, “What do you want for your future?” You could see the gears turning and their eyes light up when they begin to think that they might actually have a future outside of Lincoln Hills.

It wasn’t all about the press conference for me. It wasn’t about making myself feel better. It was about the kids. Since that visit, I’ve written letters and video chatted with kids we met up there. We went back in February with the Black History Legacy Bus to teach the kids about their own history and culture. I’m excited to report that other groups have stepped up too. Express Yourself took a special trip up there to keep the kids connected with their community. And on Saturday, we sent another group up there, including Voices of a Fatherless Child, Ex-men, and Families Moving Forward (insert other groups Donna gives us tomorrow here).

One of the most important parts of juvenile corrections is the word “correct.” We are supposed to correct the behavior that landed these troubled youth behind lock and key to begin with. These are kids we are talking about. They will get out one day. But how is a human being supposed to come out of a situation like that better than when they went in?

I’m a tough love kinda person. I’m not saying we should coddle these kids. Just taking away their Xbox isn’t enough. But putting them into a hotbed of physical and emotional violence isn’t going to magically make these young people more responsible citizens when they come out.

These kids need to know they are gone but not forgotten. If you want to find a way to help these kids, call my office at 414-342-7176.

Connect with Senator Lena C. Taylor on social media on Facebook.com/SenLenaTaylor, Twitter.com/SenTaylor or follow her at Instagram.com/Lena.Taylor.