By SCOTT BAUER, Associated Press
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Juveniles will no longer be housed at a Wisconsin youth prison that’s been under federal investigation and the subject of multiple lawsuits alleging inmate abuse, Gov. Scott Walker announced Thursday.
The Lincoln Hills-Copper Lake prisons will be changed into medium security adult prisons as part of a dramatic $80 million reorganization plan, the governor said. The plan includes opening five smaller regional juvenile prisons across the state and expanding mental health treatment at a state-run hospital in Madison.
A federal judge last year ordered the state to dramatically reduce its use of solitary confinement, shackles and pepper spray on inmates at the juvenile prison. The facility is located about 20 miles (32 kilometers) north of Wausau.
The announcement comes as Walker is up for re-election to a third term in November. He has never traveled to visit Lincoln Hills, a point his Democratic opponents have been hitting him on for months.
Walker insisted as recently as November that the prisons were safe, both for inmates and guards.
While the plan announced Wednesday won bipartisan support, some Democratic critics 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.”
The plan was developed in consultation with both Republicans and Democrats and local officials. It calls for new regional juvenile prisons, though those wouldn’t open until at least 2019.
“Republicans and Democrats alike agree this is the way forward to reform juvenile corrections,” Walker said.
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 being moved from the current facilities,” said Larry Dupuis, legal director of ACLU of Wisconsin.