January 14, 2016
My visit to Lincoln Hills
By Sen. Lena Taylor
It doesn’t get any more personal for me as a lawmaker than when it comes to issues that impact our kids. As a mother of a teenage boy who was recently wrongly put in the back of a squad car while delivering a frozen turkey to a family in need during this holiday season, I know the fear many parents in our community have about how their children are treated by our juvenile justice system.
Last month, the Department of Justice raided Lincoln Hills Juvenile Detention Center. As part of this investigation, they are looking into allegations of child abuse, sexual assault, neglect, physical abuse, witness intimidation, tampering with public records, strangulation, suffocation and a number of other violations.
The events unfolding surrounding Lincoln Hills and its neighboring Copper Lake are horrifying. As a Senator, I’ve made constituent relations a cornerstone of my service. To me, it doesn’t matter if you have been convicted of a crime or not. I believe everyone deserves to be safe, especially when they are in the care of the state.
About half the kids in Lincoln Hills are from the Milwaukee area. That’s too many kids removed from their family, their church, their loved ones and their sense of community. That’s why on Thursday, I loaded up a bus with Senator Nikiya Harris Dodd, faith and community leaders and even some family and headed to Irma, Wisconsin.
It was still dark out when we got going, and the thing that struck me on the way up wasn’t a sense of despair over how the residents and even some workers were treated at Lincoln Hills. It was a sense of hope and optimism. There is nothing like the power of love and faith, and that is exactly what I witnessed firsthand this week.
On Thursday, I got to talk to the staff. I got to look the kids in the eye and hear their stories of what they’ve experienced. Our correctional facilities should be one of the safest places in Wisconsin. Instead, Wisconsin has created an environment that led to two young girls hanging themselves because things are so dire. Luckily, they did not succeed in killing themselves, but if they had, that would be on all of us.
There is no excuse for inaction in the face of allegations of abuse. In 2009, when I became the first African American to chair the Senate Judiciary Committee, I took the entire committee on a statewide “State of the Justice System Tour” that visited correctional facilities and communities all over the state. I even went so far as to create my own contact form that residents could use to more easily communicate with me.
Even though I am no longer in charge of the Judiciary Committee, I want you to know I won’t give up on these kids. A few weeks ago, Senator Fred Risser (D-Madison) and I continued our service to everyone at these facilities by calling for the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Committee to hold a public hearing into the safety at all our state’s facilities. Unfortunately, the chairman of that committee refused to hold a public hearing. So, I did just what I did as committee chair; I took my own hearing on the road. On the bus ride, Senator Harris Dodd and I met with families and friends of loved ones. Once we arrived, we got to see firsthand what the kids are going through.
What I’ve learned is simple, these kids need to be back in their community in smaller facilities that can better care for their well-being. Today, I renew my call to bring more of these kids back to Milwaukee where they have a family support system.
I also renew my call for changes within the Department of Corrections, including an improved inmate complaint process, body cameras for workers, surveillance cameras to keep residents safe when workers aren’t present and additional staff, training and crisis counselors at the facilities.
Together, I believe we can truly make a difference!
If you or a loved one has been abused at a Correctional facility, you can reach Senator Lena Taylor at Sen.Taylor@Legis.WI.Gov.