Close Wisconsin’s illegal youth prisons NOW!

Fireworks set off outside the prison in protest and solidarity with the youth, September 2021.

This article is the first in a three-part series.

The Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake youth prisons (LH/CL) in Irma, WI have been illegally confining children since July 1, 2021. More than seventy percent of the kids are Black, and nearly half are from Milwaukee county. Starting in 2010, kids in these prisons successfully exposed horrific abuse practices by staff. By 2017, the kids and their advocates had drawn investigations from the media, the state, and federal agencies. They built so much momentum that the legislature passed and the governor signed Wisconsin act 185, which required that both prisons close by January 1, 2021. 

Unfortunately, when that date approached, rather than closing the prisons, politicians passed a new law pushing closure back to July 1. The second deadline passed this summer, and the prisons were not closed. No new law extended the deadline. The state just continued operating illegally. 

Which sends a pretty clear statement: Wisconsin politicians are willing to ignore and violate state law when it comes to abusing Black kids from Milwaukee.

Abuse at these facilities was particularly severe in 2015-2018, but it is also ongoing. The Journal Sentinel and federal investigators reported abhorrent practices, and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and partner firms filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of youth imprisoned at LH/CL. The lawsuit ended in a settlement, which required monitors to regularly return and document reforms (or lack of reform) at the facilities. 

Unsurprisingly, the monitors have found continued staff violence. The most recent report describes a sort of tense ongoing stalemate between racist guards and the children they want to abuse. Some well-intentioned but ineffectual administrators sit in the middle, struggling and sometimes failing to keep peace. Meanwhile, population numbers at LH/CL are rising again, and recent reports show that Wisconsin’s schools refer more children to law enforcement than 45 other states. Without decisive action, this problem is going to get worse. 

An AFSCME guard complaining about not being allowed to beat and torture kids anymore, April 2021.

So why is this still happening? One reason is that republican politicians, a conservative think tank, and a traitorous labor union called AFSCME teamed up to back the abusers and villainize the kids for defending themselves. Fortunately, the evidence, and public sympathies are stacked in favor of children and against abusing them. If you want to read about guards beating kids and locking them in solitary confinement, you can. If you want to read about a young woman living with cognitive impairment because guards drove her to attempt suicide and left her to it, you can. If you want to read about guards assisting suicide attempts, you can.

In 2016, organizers with Youth Justice Milwaukee (YJM) and other groups were done hearing about that awful shit. They built up massive momentum with families, politicians, and reporters, to get these facilities emptied and closed. While they did bring population down significantly, the closure effort resulted in a passed but not implemented state law and a lot of misleading headlines. In other words: it’s past time to finish that work. 

These youth prisons can close without further delay. In the rest of this article, I will lay out the best, fastest way to close youth prisons. The second article in the series will describe what happened instead. And the third will explore alternatives that actually maintain public safety without confining and abusing children.  

An immediately available solution

The fastest and most righteous way to close Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake is for the state to stop pretending that Black children are monsters. Admittedly, everyone held in these prisons was convicted of terrible crimes and many actually committed the acts. But we must stop allowing the state to reduce people to their worst mistakes. We need to recognize that youth engaging in reckless and violent behavior is a social and not individual problem. 

Many of the marginalized youths at LH/CL made tragic mistakes that seriously hurt, or killed people. But we can’t look at these acts outside of the context. Most of these youths came from economically neglected and systemically disenfranchised families. Many were struggling to grow up in the worst amerikan city to raise Black children. So if we actually want to put in the work to address this violence, we need to recognize the real causes of the harms they were involved in. Instead, Wisconsin’s culture of race and class hatred leads people to a conclusion that some young people (usually Black kids from Milwaukee) are incorrigible or inherently evil. That simplistic and racist narrative justifies both continued neglect and the horrors of youth prisons. 

This racism is codified in state laws, like always trying 17 year olds as adults, classifying some 10 year olds as delinquents, increasing the number of kids below 17 who are tried in adult court, and a sentencing program called the “Serious Juvenile Offender Program” (SJOP). Many of these laws were passed in 1996, with the, juvenile justice code overhaul. That overhaul was a regressive “reform” based in a thoroughly debunked theory of racially motivated junk science, which I’ll describe in greater detail later. For now, what matters is that youth sentenced as adults or under SJOP are required to be held in “Type 1 facilities.”Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake are Wisconsin’s primary type 1 facilities. These laws are the reason that kids are still in these prisons despite the blatant abuse and the new law requiring the prisons to close.  

The state legislature can repeal these laws, make the repeals retroactive so they apply to the youth currently sentenced, and abolish the requirement that Wisconsin have Type 1 youth facilities. If they did, the kids could be removed from LH/CL and returned to the county where they were sentenced. Then, the empty facilities could be closed or converted to an adult facility to reduce crowding in Wisconsin’s prisons. Act 185’s requirement that the DOC stop abusing kids in LH/CL would be fulfilled. 

Unfortunately, the state legislature is run by a racist republican death cult who prefers to abuse and terrorize the Black community. A closer look at the 1996 juvenile justice code, it’s origins, and the struggles to close LH/CL will clearly show the racist motivations of the legislature. 

The SJOP and mythological predators

Wisconsin’s SJOP and youth sentencing laws are remnants of the 90’s era paranoia and the racially coded “superpredator” myth. That myth was first written by a lousy Princeton professor named John Dilulio, who saw reports about Black youth violence and fudged some numbers to claim that a massive, cataclysmic spike in youth crime was coming. Sensationalizing criminologists like James Alan Fox, boosted the myth on national news until states across the country were passing laws that tried kids as adults, mandated harsh penalties, and built new youth prisons. 

Dilulio and Fox’s inflammatory predictions did not come to pass, and today, many states are stepping back from the “superpredator” laws they inspired. Even Dilulio and Fox have worked to undo the harm they caused by advocating for people sentenced as children in the 90s. Wisconsin republicans, on the other hand, continue clinging to the racist superpredator laws. Too many other Wisconsinites are letting them do it.

Still taken seriously after villanizing a generation of Black kids.

And it’s not like politicians haven’t tried to end this racist practice: 

  • In March of 2020, representative Evan Goyke (d- Sherman Park), a former public defender who represents a gerrymandered district on Milwaukee’s west side proposed, along with other democrats, raising age limits on SJOP. Republicans killed the bill. 
  • In February 2021, governor Tony Evers proposed eliminating SJOP in his 2021-22 budget. Republicans in the Joint Finance Committee (JFC) removed the proposal, and hundreds of other reforms in May. 
  • In June’s budget debates, JFC co-chair representative Mark Born (r- Beaver Dam) a former sheriff and professional obstructionist mouth-breather, admitted that he supported eliminating SJOP, but refused to hear arguments from Goyke and other democrats. He and his caucus then voted to not only maintain the SJOP, but increase it’s funding by $2.13 million. 

It’s clear that people want SJOP to end and politicians outside of the Republican party are at least making it look like they’re doing the work to end it. But making it look like you want a change and actually making a change happen are two entirely different processes.

Bipartisan reform futile in Wisconsin

Representative Goyke has been a stubborn advocate for reform through bipartisan compromise. He’s fought diligently for modest changes to the state revocation law, early releases from prison and extended supervision, and many other efforts. These bills were crafted to appeal to fiscal conservatives, aiming at bipartisan compromise, but republicans killed them. Instead, they passed a slate of “tougher on crime” bills that would have made matters worse had they not been vetoed.

Even Goyke’s expungement bill remains stymied by republican legislative leadership despite broad bipartisan support, and a rebrand under republican party authorship. This bill would allow people who completed their sentences to expunge convictions from their records and have a fresh start. Wisconsin’s laws are exceptionally stingy on expungement, so this is the most moderate, inoffensive, bipartisan reform to the criminal legal system imaginable. Still, republican leadership blocked it from going to a vote. 

Goyke considers himself a pragmatist, but there is nothing pragmatic about continually attempting something with such a poor track record of success. When it comes to mass incarceration or racial equity, bipartisan compromise is definitely off the table until and unless the composition of the state legislature changes significantly and republican leadership loses their grip on power. Fortunately, republican leadership isn’t needed to effectively get rid of SJOP and empty LH/CL. The democrats have the power to do it alone.

Bypassing intractable racists

The SJOP is a sentencing enhancement, which means it falls under the governor’s broad pardon powers. Article V section 6 of the state constitution grants the governor the “power to grant reprieves, commutations and pardons, after conviction, for all offenses, except treason and cases of impeachment.” That means Tony Evers can commute the sentences of kids tried as adults and the SJOP portion of any sentence. He can also do the same for any kid sentenced under these terrible laws in the future, effectively imposing a moratorium on them. 

Governor Evers committing to visit Lincoln Hills, Jan 2020.

By doing so, he would reduce LH/CL population to zero, bringing Wisconsin’s youth incarceration practices into alignment with state law. More importantly, he would achieve the will of the majority of Wisconsinites by protecting kids from ongoing abuse at LH/CL. A similar approach could also be adopted to effectively legalize marijuana by pardoning everyone convicted of dealing or possessing it, or to make good on his campaign promises to reduce the prison population. 

Bypassing the legislature would be a bold and drastic move, but allowing prisons with a history of abusing and killing children to continue operating illegally is also drastic. I spoke with Evan Goyke for this article, and when asked about Evers issuing pardons, he said he hadn’t considered the possibility of pardoning just SJOP sentences, and that he would look into it. 

“The practical answer,” he followed up, “is that the minute Evers did it, he would get sued by a right-wing think tank, and it would go before the conservative supreme court that has ruled against the governor often, even blocking his attempts to protect people during a pandemic.” While it is true that Wisconsin’s state supreme court is packed with conservative activists, who are as corrupt and partisan as the legislature, the state constitution’s language is very clear about the governor’s broad pardon power. Blocking pardons would require these justices dropping the last pretense of legality and shredding the state constitution. 

Governor Evers has taken on the supreme court in the past for elections, for COVID protection, and against gerrymandering. If he cared as much about youth being abused and driven to suicide by state employees a he does about improving his party’s election chances, he would call the republicans’ bluff and issue pardons. 

Doing so would force the issue back into the public spotlight. The republican party would have to choose between three options: let Evers take credit for solving the child abuse they refuse to address, sacrifice the state supreme court’s last pretense of legitimacy, or finally pass youth sentencing reform. Even if they took the worst of those options, went to the supreme court and won, Evers’ pardons would protect the kids from abuse for the months or years while the case was litigated.  

Wisconsin’s democratic institutions are crumbling under the senseless force of Trump-backed republicans, but, really, majority rule has been a thing of the past here since republicans gerrymandered the state back in 2012. When Tony Evers decided to run for governor, he knew he was pursuing a job that would thrust him into that situation, full of conflicts requiring difficult decisions. Thus far, he has too often sided with the racists on those decisions and let the people of Milwaukee suffer. That needs to change, starting now. 

This was the first in a three-part series on closing Wisconsin’s illegal, racist, and abusive youth prisons. Part two will re-examine the sordid tale of compromises that left these prisons open, and part three will explore alternatives to youth incarceration for Milwaukee and Wisconsin.

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