By Mrinal Gokhale
The Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls, two juvenile detention centers, have been in the spotlight for the past few months after jail workers were accused of verbal, physical and sexual abuse towards inmates.
As a result, Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele met with Judge Maxine White, Department of Health and Human Services and others after the investigation, and called on the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors to fund 12 staff members to monitor the facilities.
“We want to ensure these children have quality educational opportunities and access to supportive services like mental health counseling and peer mentoring to reduce their chances of re-offending,” said Abele.
Earlier, Senator Lena Taylor, who learned about the disturbing allegations through the press, gathered a group to visit Lincoln Hills on a cold December day.
She went with Senator Nikiya Harris Dodd, parents of inmates, pastors, and individuals from Wraparound Milwaukee, Running Rebels, Wisconsin Community Services and Voices of a Fatherless Child – all organizations which serve at-risk youth.
“It took us four hours to get there. Out of the 168 inmates, we saw 119 who were all from Milwaukee.
Parents shouldn’t have to drive so far to see their kids,” she said.
Upon arrival, the group formed four areas where the youth could choose between participating in spoken word, theater and other activities.
“A young man saw me sitting on the floor, and he offered me his chair without being prompted.
I let him keep his chair, but I gave him the book ‘I Write What I See’ because we want these young people to use writing as an outlet.”
Throughout the day, Taylor found many things wrong with the facility from the lack of haircuts to lack of quality care.
However, she said she is glad that there is a reliable system for complaints to be recorded and tracked.
“I saw there weren’t many young people in the classroom, which made me question their programming. I only saw two clinical staff members and no trauma informed care,” she recalled.
The inmates also discussed having negative experiences with the jailhouse workers in what Taylor describes as a “candid” conversation.
“They told us the guards were calling them ‘delinquents’ and the n-word,” she said.
“But one girl responded, ‘They’re not all like that. Some are here to help,’ which was refreshing to hear.”
Among the 12 employees Abele called for, four include an aftercare manager and three human services workers, included in the 2016 budget.
“We see a need for additional case workers and juvenile corrections officers both in the short-term to monitor conditions in Lincoln Hills and provide children direct support and in the long run as we expand our community-based alternative programs to keep kids closer to home and out of the criminal justice system.”
In 2012, he launched the Milwaukee County Accountability Program, which helps juvenile inmates stay closer to home through services such as AODA counseling, education through Wauwatosa Public Schools, GPS monitoring during home visits and more.
“Every child in our care should have these opportunities, because this is how we can reduce their odds of re-offending and empower them to live a better life,” he said.
In addition to lack of proper programming, Taylor also believes the board, in the predominantly white town, lacks diversity. “It’s challenging for a community that lacks diversity to serve young people, if they’ve only seen black people on TV or in prison,” she said.
Before leaving the school, Taylor made sure to give words of encouragement to all 119 youth.
“I told them this doesn’t have to be their story and it’s just a moment in their lives. We’re planning for February 26 and it’d be ideal to visit at least every month, if not quarterly,” she said.
The February 26 visit is not finalized, as of yet. For now, the county plans to use $500,000 for emergency alternative housing closer to Milwaukee, in addition to planning for more direct support services and monitoring of the facility.