By Dylan Deprey
At 9 months old, Marcus was thrust into the Wisconsin Foster Care system. He lived with his aunt and uncle, where he was physically and sexually abused for 14 years.
It was at his second foster home where his foster parents would scour the state searching for programs to prevent Marcus from landing in a juvenile prison. He held a 3.3 GPA, and was on the honor roll. He had football scholarships coming in, yet they could not find anything.
The search was over, but it wasn’t until he was already serving his 16 month stay at Lincoln Hills Juvenile Detention Center.
“I went to Lincoln Hills because of some decisions I made in my life that were poor choices that I took responsibility for,” Marcus said. “At the same time, I didn’t believe I was given the opportunity or possibility to deter my lifestyle before getting to that point.”
“14 months away from my family; 14 months away from my friends and I learned nothing at Lincoln Hills,” Marcus said.
Community organizations, youth advocates and families with youth involved in the juvenile justice system announced the launch of prison reform coalition, Youth Justice Milwaukee (YJM), during a press conference at the 2017 Youth Justice Summit on Wednesday, March 22.
YJM advocates for community-based and family-centered restorative programs to replace Wisconsin’s youth prisons as alternative methods of prevention and rehabilitation.
“We have traumatized our kids by locking them up in old, obsolete prisons. We are traumatizing their families and the communities we live in, and it needs to stop,” said Sharlen Moore, Executive Director at Urban Underground.
Moore said she had worked firsthand with kids through the youth programming at Urban Underground, and saw the affect juvenile prison hindered their chances for success into adulthood.
Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake have made countless headlines over the last few years, which has prompted an ongoing FBI investigation.
Most recently, the ACLU and the Juvenile Law Center have filed a lawsuit on behalf of four teenagers against state officials claiming cruel and unusual punishments, which included the use of pepper spray for minor infractions and the heavy use of solitary confinement.
“There is mounting evidence that our youth justice system must be reformed,” said Jeff Roman, Youth Justice Milwaukee, in a press release.
According to a new YJM poll released on March 22, 65 percent of Milwaukee County residents from all political ideals supported the move from incarceration and punishment in juvenile prisons to rehabilitation and prevention programs. It also stated that 90 percent supported designing treatment and rehab facilities to include youth’s family and services.
Rep. David Crowley said YJM was taking a step in the right direction to get the entire state on board.
“We know this is a prison state. We know many prison towns and prison counties that rely on this particular industry and we need folks to understand that we spend money on education, but we spend a lot more on the DOC,” Crowley said following the press conference.
Wisconsin spent $30 million on juvenile correctional facilities in 2014- 2015, and the majority (61 percent) released from institutions in Wisconsin committed a new crime within three years of being released.
Marcus said following his stay at Lincoln Hills he spent another 16 months at a group home because DOC could not find a place for him to go and would not send him home. The average time at a group home is 3 months.
“I sat in front of my DOC agent for 16 months, and asked this man over and over if I could make it into college. He said, ‘It’s impossible, I’ve worked here for 14 years and never saw it happen”” Marcus said.
Weeks later Marcus tossed three acceptance letters on his agent’s desk. He is now a student at St. Norbert’s College in DePere, WI.
“With the right support behind you, you can make the impossible, possible,” Marcus said. “We can’t do that when kids are sent 6 hours away from their homes.”