Bipartisan plan to build youth prison near Milwaukee, close Lincoln Hills now in jeopardy
MADISON, Wis. (CBS 58) -- A bipartisan bill to close a troubled youth prison and build a new one near Milwaukee is now in jeopardy despite lawmakers on both sides showing support for the plan.
Momentum was building after the state Senate on Tuesday unanimously voted (33-0) in favor of a bill to close Lincoln Hills and build a new facility in Milwaukee County. It would allow the state to borrow $41.8 million to fund a juvenile facility near Milwaukee with the intent to have youth closer to their support system.
It was the next step towards closing the troubled youth prison that became the center of controversies in 2018.
However, the proposal is likely dead after Assembly Speaker Robin Vos voiced concerns over borrowing money before a location for the detention center is finalized.
"It's very challenging for us to say we're going to pass a bill with a bunch of money without a site for it," Vos said.
Democrats were frustrated because Republicans, including Vos, unanimously supported legislation to close the youth prison in 2018.
State Rep. Evan Goyke, (D-Milwaukee), said Vos' resistance to hold a vote on the bill is an example of "why people hate politics."
"There is one person standing in the way of getting this done and that is Speaker Robin Vos," said State Rep. Evan Goyke (D-Milwaukee). "This is why people hate politics right now. There is no opposition, no one is saying don't do this. It's all about reelection politics and the two parties are unable to work together."
Where the facility is located and how much it will cost has stalled the closure for years. The Evers administration has not decided on a location, but is considering the Felmers O. Chaney Correctional Center. Some advocates oppose closing Felmers Chaney, which is used to help inmates prepare to reenter the workforce.
Vos blamed Gov. Evers for not proposing a detailed plan about closing the detention center to eventually meet their goal of building smaller regional facilities across the state.
State Sen. Lena Taylor, (D-Milwaukee), said it was "hogwash" for the Speaker to criticize the Evers administration, noting the Legislature has to act first before plans are finalized.
"[Vos] has blocked funding the entire time for this project and the administration cannot do anything until the legislative body approves the money," Taylor said.
A spokeswoman for Evers said in a statement, "it is the height of hypocrisy for Republicans to blame anyone but themselves for failing to close Lincoln Hills after repeatedly rejecting Gov. Evers’ and our administration’s efforts to do so."
In 2018, lawmakers voted to close Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake after both facilities faced criminal investigations for allegations of abuse and neglect towards juveniles.
The original deadline to close was set for January 2021, but lawmakers eventually realized they couldn't commit to that due to a lack of funding for the project.
Gov. Tony Evers in 2019 signed an extension to close the youth prisons by July 2021, but acknowledged later on it wasn't a realistic deadline.
Since then, Evers has proposed funding in the last two budgets to replace Lincoln Hills, but Republicans rejected his request.
In 2018, the state did agree to pay more than $25 million in settlements after many juveniles were left in solitary confinement for weeks, pepper sprayed, and in some cases, seriously injured.
The criminal investigation at the detention centers ended in 2019 without any charges.
It did result with a court-appointed monitor to make frequent visits to Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake to review the conditions.
The latest report released this month showed physical improvements to the building and a renovation of a new recreational space for staff and youth.
The monitor did note concerns from some juveniles including complaints about food and lack of consistency in rules.