By State Representative, Leon D. Young
It’s an absolute disgrace plain and simple. Last week, the judicial hammer finally dropped on both Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake – Wisconsin’s beleaguered juvenile prisons. After being under criminal investigation for well over two years, U.S. District Judge James Peterson ultimately felt compelled to take judicial action to curb the ongoing abuse of teenage inmates.
More specifically, Judge Peterson issued a sweeping judicial decision to halt several correctional practices that the court deemed to be objectionable: the use of solitary confinement, pepper spray and the use of restraints (handcuffs and waist belts) at this teen prison complex. In addition, Judge Peterson expressed grave concerns about the abilities of the top leaders at Lincoln Hills, noting Security Director Brian Gustke had no experience in juvenile corrections before taking his job at Lincoln Hills a year ago. And, Supervisor Wendy Peterson has an education background and has been at Lincoln Hills for six years, but has never worked at a well-run juvenile prison.
Scott Walker and the Department of Corrections (DOC) alleged that the situation had been addressed and substantive changes implemented after the prison was raided by 50 agents and attorneys in December 2015. But obviously, that hasn’t been the case.
In retrospect, the state’s treatment of incarcerated adolescent offenders has been atrocious at best. As noted by Judge Peterson, most states don’t use solitary confinement as a form of punishment for juvenile inmates. Wisconsin’s policy, on the other hand, allows inmates to be held in isolation for up to 60 days but, what’s even more egregious, occasions continue to arise when inmates stay there longer than that. Moreover, lengthy stays in solitary confinement at Lincoln Hills are “well beyond national norms even for states that permit the use of solitary confinement,” per the judge.
There is something inherently wrong with this picture. In the six years that Scott Walker has been in office, he has never saw fit to visit this embattled juvenile prison complex. Lost in this sad tale is the fact that the state has duty to rehabilitate and uplift these young offenders before they are released back into the community. Instead, Walker and his cohorts have been bent on inflicting corporal punishment, which increases the likelihood that these individuals will be prone to a life of crime in the future.