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Wisconsin’s Troubled Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls to Close in 2021, New Governor Says

by Derek Gilna

 The Wisconsin Department of Corrections youth facilities at the Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls, located in rural Wisconsin north of Madison, will both close in 2021, Governor Tony Evers said in a January 2019 speech, ratifying a recommendation by previous Governor Scott Walker, and replaced with other, smaller facilities. The existing facilities had been hit with multiple lawsuits and a three-year federal investigation over alleged abusive conditions of confinement.

A 2017 federal class action suit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and Juvenile Law Center had alleged that, “The State routinely subjects these youth to unlawful solitary confinement, mechanical restraints and pepper spraying. Prior to state and federal raids on the facility at the end of 2015, staff also regularly physically abused youth in the facility. Currently, Wisconsin’s juvenile corrections officials lock up approximately 15% to 20% percent or more of the facilities’ young residents in solitary confinement cells for 22 or 23 hours per day.”

“Many of these children are forced to spend their only free hour of time per day outside of a solitary confinement cell in handcuffs and chained to a table. Officers also repeatedly and excessively use Bear Mace and other pepper sprays against the youth, causing them excruciating pain and impairing their breathing,” the lawsuit continued.

Shortly after the lawsuit was filed, U.S. District Judge James Peterson entered a preliminary injunction, which provided that, “Defendants are enjoined from using disciplinary or punitive restrictive housing or any other form of disciplinary or punitive solitary confinement,” and required the Wisconsin DOC to institute additional reforms. But even after these changes were ordered, the determination was made by state officials that meaningful reform would require new, smaller facilities, some of which would be located closer to the state’s population centers.

The youth facilities also were roiled by federal raids and an intensive three-year federal investigation. Federal officials indicated that they were considering criminal charges against two Lincoln Hills guards accused of excessive force.

The problems in the Wisconsin youth correctional facilities became a central issue in the 2018 election in which Evers defeated Walker. According to Evers, the issue was the prior administration’s failure to solve problems that were well known but not resolved for over five years.

The current juvenile correctional facilities will be changed over into adult prisons. This shouldn’t prove too difficult since they include extensive solitary confinement facilities and are encircled by razor-wire.

See: J.J., et al. v. Litscher, et al, U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin, 17-cv-47, July 17, 2017

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Related legal case

J.J., et al. v. Litscher, et al.