By Dylan Deprey
The words: amputated, sexual assault, child abuse and inhumane do not commonly occur in regular conversation. Usually, these words arise during police dramas, horror films and documentaries.
Lately, these words have made the headlines in local media sites concerning Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake juvenile detention centers in Irma, WI.
What about the phrase, “epic fail?”
That is how District Attorney John Chisholm described the state of the juvenile detention centers at the 30th anniversary of the Community Brainstorming Conference on Saturday, February 27.
Chisholm spoke to the packed basement of the St. Matthew C.M.E. Church on Milwaukee’s north side.
Moderator Mildred Harpole announced February’s panel and gave her own statement on the recent information on the state of the juvenile detention centers.
“It is the responsibility of this community to educate our children, and protect our children, and especially when it is necessary to exercise humane tough love,” Harpole said.
More words were thrown around during the panelists discourse, including: mental health, cultural disconnect, trauma and yet again failure. All of these words are pieces of the unfinished puzzle that is the condition of Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake juvenile detention centers.
The state of the detention centers does not center around one specific issue. Panelists addressed a multitude of problems and past decisions that have led to the demise of these juvenile detention centers.
County Executive Chris Abele gave the perspective of the county and its investigation as well as the FBI’s investigation on Lincoln Hills.
“The highest priority is the safety and wellness of these kids,” Abele said.
According to Abele, the county has similar youth programs that only have a return rate of 10 percent, compared to the 65 percent at Lincoln Hills.
District Attorney John Chisholm gave a history lesson to the gathering of concerned community members.
He attributes decisions from the 70’s and 80’s to move the juvenile offenders to Dodge County.
He noted that during that time, there were arguments to build facilities in the communities to help maintain relationships with the community and family.
This would offer a less stressful integration back into the community.
“Anybody who thinks this can be done overnight, we would be fooling ourselves,” Chisholm said.
Jermaine Reed, executive director of Fresh Start Family Services, noted that the incarceration of black youth begins long before the handcuffs are put on.
He said that foster care and special education lead to a cultural disconnect. He looked over the crowd and asked, “Is the system broken or designed?”
Reed advocated for a trauma informed system that recognizes the experiences black children endure.
“To reduce the number of black children in corrections we need to support families on the ground levels,” Reed said.
“To program the output, we need to program the system differently.” State Rep. Evan Goyke and State Rep. Mandela Barnes addressed the current state of Lincoln Hills.
“One big prison for kids doesn’t work,” Goyke said. “The good kid doesn’t rub off on the bad kid; it’s the other way around.”
He also added that this system has led to a 65 percent recidivism rate.
Goyke encouraged the state to study the Missouri Model.
This breaks down the system by the severity of offenses like regular state prisons.
Goyke also addressed that the respected ratio for staff to student should be eight-to-one.
The 28 percent staff vacancy at Lincoln Hills tips this ratio over which has led to the staff-on-student and student-on-student violence.
“They can’t possibly manage 20 people when they should be managing eight,” Goyke said.
During Barnes’ speech, he aimed at the state and in particular, the Walker administration.
The spike in the resignation and retirement in staff at the juvenile detention centers occurred 2010 and 2011, with the passing of Act 10.
This changed the limits on the collective bargaining rights for public employees.
“No matter where you work, if you work repeat 16 hour shifts, you are not going to have it all,” Barnes said.
Children’s Court Judge Mary Triggiano offered her experience with Lincoln Hills and the judiciary’s standpoint.
Triggiano stated that making the right decision children court is imperative for the child and families’ future.
“We are trying to figure out how not to send kids to a place that is not working,” Triggiano said.
She noted that fewer children have been sent to these juvenile detention centers by utilizing community projects like Wrap Around Milwaukee.
Although there has been a reduction in sending children, more can be done.
“We need more options to treat these kids,” Triggiano said.
“No one group can do this alone.”
With all the words that usually are unheard in terms of juvenile detention centers, she offered the crowd nine words.
“We can’t afford to get this next step wrong.”