Bring Our Youth Home from Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake
We’ve all been distressed by the news coming out of Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls, Wisconsin’s two youth prisons that are currently under federal investigation. The minors in custody there have reported being abused, injured, pepper sprayed, locked in solitary confinement for great lengths of time and sexually assaulted.
Yet the state has done little to nothing to change its approach to youth incarceration. Its only real reforms have resulted from an order from a federal judge, who wrote that Ted Kaczynski, the infamous Unabomber who’s incarcerated in a Supermax prison, “has less restrictive confinement” than the young people in Lincoln Hills.
While many have commented on the steady stream of revelations from Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake, some important voices are routinely left out of the conversation: those of the children that have returned from Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake, along with their families and community members. That’s why we formed Youth Justice Milwaukee and are calling for the shutdown of Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake, which comprise the largest youth prison campus in the country. We want to bring our youth home so that they can receive comprehensive care in the community and change their lives for the better instead of being abused or exposed to abuse.
Comprehensive care close to home is a viable alternative to youth prisons. For example, Running Rebels is already providing intensive monitoring of chronic youth offenders so that they learn how to change their behavior. These are the kinds of programs we could expand or adapt for our young people. What our coalition knows—and what we’ve learned from data and examples from around the country—is that youth prisons don’t work.
- Youth prisons don’t make our communities safer because they cause irreparable psychological and social damage to adolescent growth and development. A full 61% of formerly incarcerated youth in Wisconsin commit new crimes within three years of their release, showing that they were not rehabilitated while in custody. In contrast, community programs offer opportunities for change. A national study by John Jay Research and Evaluation found that six to 12 months after discharge from a community-based program, 87% of youth were still living in the community and 95% were not in secure placement.
- Youth prisons perpetuate racial and ethnic disparities by locking up disproportionately more African American and Latino youth than their white peers. This, in turn, feeds Wisconsin’s adult prison system, which, at 12.8%, has the highest incarceration rate for black men in the country—almost twice the national average.
- Youth prisons are expensive. It costs taxpayers more than $100,000 per year to place one youth at Lincoln Hills or Copper Lake; Milwaukee County spends $300 per day for each youth in custody there. This is money that could be better spent on a system that rehabilitates youth offenders.
Wisconsin should follow the lead of other jurisdictions around the country that have shut down their youth prisons and invested in community-based alternatives. Thanks to the work of committed attorneys, activists, families and elected leaders, youth prisons have been shuttered in California, Louisiana, Mississippi, New York, Texas and Washington, D.C., with positive results: Most of these states have seen a drop in costs and recidivism rates after closing their youth prisons and investing in alternative community-based solutions.
Youth Justice Milwaukee has launched an online petition at change.org calling on Gov. Scott Walker—who hasn’t toured either of the youth prisons under his control—and state legislators to shut down Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake. We’re asking for your support.
It’s time to fundamentally change Wisconsin’s juvenile justice system by bringing our youth home and investing in community-based alternatives that will make our communities safer and change young people’s lives for the better.