Evers signs bill authorizing funding to build Lincoln Hills replacement facility in Milwaukee County
Irma detention center to be repurposed as adult correctional institution
By Jalen Maki
Tomahawk Leader Editor
MADISON – Governor Tony Evers, on Friday, April 8, signed into law Senate Bill 520, which allocates nearly $42 million to the construction of a facility that will replace Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake Schools in Irma.
The legislation unanimously passed the State Assembly and the State Senate in February.
Under the bill, up to $41,791,000.00 in bonding is authorized for the purpose of building a new Type 1 juvenile correctional facility in Milwaukee County.
Once a site for the new facility is chosen, the Wisconsin Department of Administration must get the approval from the governing body of the municipality in which the site is located before moving forward with plans for construction, according the to the bill.
The Irma facility will be repurposed as an adult correctional institution.
The bipartisan bill was backed by more than 30 lawmakers, including State Senator Mary Felzkowski (R-Tomahawk) and Calvin Callahan (R-Tomahawk).
Felzkowski called the signing of the legislation “the crucial next step needed for the closure and conversion of Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake.”
“The state is long overdue in taking this action and I’m excited we were able to get this bill across the finish line,” Felzkowski stated in a release. “I have faith that the Department of Corrections will move quickly to take the next necessary steps and get the new facility built.”
Callahan said the legislation’s signing is “a huge step in the right direction.”
“I’m proud to see that Gov. Evers has signed SB 520 into law and we can finally move forward with the closure of Lincoln Hills/Copper Lake and repurposing it into an adult facility, and making it a safer environment for the employees within,” Callahan stated in a release.
Lincoln Hills’ troubled history
The signing of Senate Bill 520 marks a key moment in a years-long journey to close the embattled Lincoln Hills/Copper Lake facility and convert it into an adult correctional institution.
The several years leading up to the legislation’s signing saw allegations of abuse brought by both inmates and staff and millions of dollars in legal settlements against the State of Wisconsin.
In Dec. 2015, federal investigators raided the Irma facility amid claims that staff had used excessive force against youth. Four years later, millions of dollars in legal settlements were reached in a pair of lawsuits.
In the first case, a 17-year-old inmate had to have two toes partially amputated after a guard, who was attempting to move the youth into his room, shoved the youth into the room and slammed the door on his foot. A $300,000.00 settlement was ultimately reached.
In the second case, a 16-year-old youth suffered permanent and severe brain damage after attempting suicide in her cell. Staff would later be accused of not immediately responding to a call light the youth had turned on, but instead waiting 24 minutes, during which time, the youth hanged herself with a torn t-shirt. She was found without a pulse and not breathing, and guards revived her heart using a defibrillator and CPR. The youth spent four months in a coma and was expected to require around-the-clock care for the rest of her life. The state later agreed to pay the youth $18.9 million.
A class action lawsuit filed in Jan. 2017 by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Wisconsin and multiple youths who had been incarcerated at the Irma detention center accused staff of routinely disciplining youth with “unlawful solitary confinement, mechanical restraints and pepper spraying.”
The suit sought “injunctive relief against these inhumane practices.”
A federal judge ruled in June 2017 that Wisconsin Department of Corrections would be required to restrict the use of solitary confinement, pepper spray and restraints used on youth at the facility.
In his assessment, U.S. District Judge James Peterson said the punishments and actions at Lincoln Hills/Copper Lake were “a violation of the youth’s constitutional rights.”
Peterson also called the extended use of solitary confinement “severe and damaging.”
“Ted Kaczynski has less restrictive confinement than the youth at Lincoln Hills,” Peterson stated in reference to the “Unabomber” serial killer currently serving eight consecutive life sentences at a supermax prison in Colorado.
In Oct. 2017, a female instructor at Lincoln Hills was assaulted by a youth incarcerated at the facility. The instructor was transported by ambulance to a medical facility after reportedly being punched in the face. The instructor later said that she would not suffer permanent physical damage as a result of the assault, although she said she would seek counseling due to worry of developing post traumatic stress disorder.
State legislators voted in 2018 to close the youth detention facility and replace it with a total of six regional state- and county-run facilities. Evers later signed into law a July 1, 2021 deadline to shutter the facility, but the state ultimately did not meet the deadline after Legislative Republicans rejected plans to fund the state-run facilities.
In April 2019, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Wisconsin, the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) concluded a four-plus-year investigation into alleged civil rights violations by Lincoln Hills staff members. The investigation found insufficient evidence to establish that staff had violated civil rights statutes.
Efforts to close the facility ramped up again earlier this year with the introduction of Senate Bill 520.
“For years, legislators have been talking about closing Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake as a juvenile facility while simultaneously delaying and obstructing plans to do so,” Evers said in a release after signing the legislation. “I am glad to be finally signing this bill today that will ensure we can move our kids out of Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake safely and responsibly by providing the funding needed to move forward on a Type 1 facility in Milwaukee County. By doing so, these kids will be closer to home, their families, and their support networks, so we can set them up for better success both while they are in our care and when they re-enter our communities.”