Close Youth Prisons Part 3: forty-six million 

The people’s revolution marching, September 2020.

This is the last in a three-part series about closing the illegal youth prisons in Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake (LH/CL). Part one outlined the best, fastest way to close these prisons. Part two re-examined the sordid tale of compromises that left the prisons open, and the millions of dollars the democrats are trying to spend on new ones. In this part, we’ll take a look at what could be funded with those millions instead. 

The actual needs of Milwaukee youth

Democrats are trying to spend $42-46 million on a new prison in Milwaukee county that would cage 36 children. At the low end, that’s $1.17 million each child. Last February there were 22 kids from Milwaukee county in LH/CL who this new prison would be built for. That’s about $2 million each child. That’s ridiculous.

“A lot is not needed for everybody,” Sharlen Moore from Youth Justice MKE (YJM) told me, “intensive services are needed for a small fraction of our youth population, but it’s far less than the already more than $200,000 a year to incarcerate one young person at Lincoln Hills. You’re telling me that we can’t use those dollars to support a family with wraparound services, with housing, therapeutic services? You can’t tell me that we would need to spend that much money to support a family in the community.” 

Sharlen Moore leading a youth speak out event, March 2018.

Milwaukee has youth supporting organizations like Sharlen Moore’s group, Urban Underground, as well as countless others. Running Rebels, or The New State come to mind immediately, but there are many many more. Sharlen also emphasized that supporting troubled kids depends on lifting up everyone in the community: “I don’t believe in putting all the quote unquote ‘bad’ kids in one place,” she said, “they don’t learn that way. It’s important that youth supporting organizations have resources to support a variety of young people. We have to be able to spread it out.” 

Black youth in Milwaukee have been targeted by police for generations at this point. According to the DOC numbers 93% of the youth at LH/CL have a mental health conditions. Only 25% of the diagnoses are classified as severe, but we know the DOC manipulates diagnoses to undercount severe cases, which allows them to torture more people. 

Wisconsin is a state founded on racial violence. German, French, and Norwegian settlers came here and slaughtered indigenous people, the wars with the Sauk and Ho-Chunk, are best documented, but surely not the only massacres. After the civil war, they welcomed former slaves fleeing the south, but not as refugees or equals, as a source of cheap, exploitable labor. These origins infect all of Wisconsin history and present. 

Even Milwaukee’s famed “sewer socialists” and progressive leaders were obsessed with order, discipline, and fitness. Many, like Victor Berger, were also openly racist and sexist. This tradition continued through the 20th century. It manifests today in the limits of organizations aligned with or funded by the AFL-CIO, who talk racial justice, but behind closed doors clearly discourage or obstruct anti-prison action for the sake of the blood money their affiliate AFSCME makes off guard dues. 

Another example of big labor racism is those unions, and union-backed politicians who partnered with the oil industry to pass a pipeline protection law in 2019 that will help violate indigenous sovereignty and pollute Wisconsin’s land and water. Enbridge will likely resume their line 5 efforts, now that they’ve completed line 3 in Minnesota. Thanks to the 2019 law, Wisconsin’s pipeline protesters who take anything like the many inspiring actions that slowed and threatened to stop line 3, will face 6-10 years in prison. 

Police cleaning up after valve turners in Michigan temporarily shut down line 5.

Holistic repairs

Wisconsin youth recovering from all this exploitation, systemic racism, and marginalization from both the right and sections of the left require holistic repair. They need more than job opportunities or youth programming. Sharlen told me about “more things that we need, more homes, livable neighborhoods, again spreading the love so that we have affordable housing across Milwaukee, not just concentrated in particular areas… therapeutic services need resources to expand their capacity… There are things that exist, and there are things that don’t exist that we have the capacity to create, but the resources aren’t there.”

Community organizations like Comforce, Sherman Phoenix, Metcalfe Park Community Bridges (and many more than we can name here) provide broader services to the whole community, helping families connect and form a whole village approach to raising troubled kids. Meanwhile, organizations like MICAH, All of Us or None, ProjectRETURN, The Community, and the Alma Center help people, including parents, recover from harms the prison system inflicted on them so they can have a positive role in community and children’s lives. Black Space and Healing Intergenerational Roots are new organizations normalizing and providing therapy for Black and Brown people in Milwaukee. 

I’ve just barely scratched the surface. There are many organizations and projects, some beyond my awareness, that are doing great work with limited means. There are also many more which currently exist only in the imaginations of community members who would create them, but for lack of resources. Mariame Kaba’s Project NIA, and Interrupting Criminalization have created a virtual zine project called One Million Experiments, which collects and archives community-based safety projects that the people of Milwaukee could take as inspiration for alternatives.

Organizers with Program the Parks feeding their community and caring for youth in in Sherman Park.

Our carceral education system

I cannot let the Milwaukee Public School (MPS) system off the hook. Both MPD and MPS have egregious racial disparities, and neither are showing progress when required by higher authorities to reform. According to a report from The Center for Public Integrity (CPI), Wisconsin teachers call the police on students more often than all but three other states in amerika. When researchers narrowed to just look at Black or disabled kids, Wisconsin teachers’ rate of calling police on kids more than doubled. 

Wisconsin Watch drilled down on CPI’s data and found that, while MPS called cops on kids far more often than the national average, the Wisconsin school districts calling police on students of color most frequently were in rural counties. For this reason, when it comes to calling police on indigenous kids, Wisconsin tops the country. This state is unsurprisingly often also at the top of lists for disproportionately incarcerating indigenous adults

This is part of a larger national trend, where reforms slow the carceral state in urban areas, while incarceration rates continue to rise in rural areas. The Wisconsin bar association found that while incarceration rates of Black women were declining, they were rising for native women. Similarly, disparities for black incarceration are higher in many rural counties than Milwaukee. If these trends continue, the new youth prison Goyke and Evers want to build in Milwaukee county might end up being further from home for many of it’s captive children. 

A study by Kim Ekart from the University of Washington found that “Black young adults are 11 times more likely to be arrested by age 20 if they had an initial encounter with law enforcement in their early teens than Black youth who don’t have that first contact.” The same is not true for white youth. Police target certain youth, setting them on a course of trauma, stigmatization, and incarceration. 


Sharlen described the problem as systemic. “It’s the same conversation we’re having around schools,” she said, “we shouldn’t put all the low achieving students in these particular schools, and that’s what we’ve done. We have elite public schools… with testing requirements, and schools that have become dumping grounds.” 

Wisconsin educators are working with law enforcement to disappear Black, Brown, and Indigenous kids. Every disciplinary action and police encounter shoves them down a carceral spiral leading into prisons, where they get confined, traumatized, often abused, and sometimes tortured or driven to suicide. In 2014, Mariame Kaba and Erica Meiners wrote a powerful article calling on teachers and policymakers to “arrest the carceral state” by supporting a “paradigm shift, and… build[ing] alternatives to harsh disciplinary policies.” It should be essential reading for Wisconsin educators. 

Like the rebels doing backflips and demanding pizza on the roof of Lincoln Hills, youth are leading resistance. In June of 2020, after two years of fighting, Leaders Igniting Transformation, a Black and brown-led nonprofit for youth power, got the Milwaukee public school board to kick out MPD’s school resource officer program. This is only the beginning of a broader conversation where all educators and community members recognize that police are toxic for Black children.

Whether we’re talking about education reform, youth activities, or just families having what they need to adequately raise children, the resources are scarce. All of Milwaukee’s potential is stifled and struggling while our local and state government invest the bulk of their budgets into continuing traditions of racially targeted violence through police and prisons. 

When asked about resources, Sharlen said, “I wish I could say, ‘hey, y’know, we could do this off of love and we’ll be good’ but, at the end of the day, there’s going to need to be resources that come down. Some of these families have just, high needs… we need to make sure that they have housing, food, wraparound intensive services, [and] therapeutic support.” Neither those families, nor the communities they live in need a $46 million dollar youth prison. There are so many better things that money can go into.

Leaders Igniting Transformation protests MPS central office, October 2019.

How to get it: defund police

Resources are clearly not going to come from this state legislature. As described in the last article, when the abuse scandal at LH/CL broke, the legislature’s first and last responses were to try and throw more kids in there. They only briefly departed from seeking greater harm for Milwaukee youths during peak election season. 

In general, state politicians have been voting to screw over Wisconsin’s largest city since before 2009, using an outdated and highly unusual shared revenue scheme. The legislature is also gerrymandered to fuck, and controlled by a rigid, minority-rule party of racist demogogues. Wisconsin is not a functional democracy, and much of the rest of the state seems to want nothing less than to see Milwaukee bleed out.

Suffice to say, we need to focus on the county and city level to find resources for our people. Fortunately, there are some seriously over-funded local departments, ones that also perpetrate the systemic violence we are trying to stop.  

In the city budget, Milwaukee’s common council and the mayor have been giving nearly half of all funds to the police department (MPD), for years now. Since 2019, the African American Roundtable (AART) and allied organizations have been fighting through their LiberateMKE campaign to wrench money from this police budget, and invest it in housing, youth opportunities, and non-police violence prevention. 

At the time of this writing, the city’s budget process is underway. Mayor Tom Barret is trying to train and hire 195 more cops, even though the city’s long-term pension crisis is coming due. Unfortunately, our alders cannot be trusted to prevent this disaster without great pressure from their constituents. Contact your alder today and demand they defund MPD in the budget and recovery act funds and invest in Milwaukee’s youth.  

AART also has a petition you can sign, and a sample letter to help with choosing your words. The next meeting of the finance and personnel committee, which is expected to vote on the police funding will be October 28, at 9am

Milwaukee law enforcement go to war against the people, June 2020.

Milwaukee county also feeds youth incarceration and breaking up families through the sheriff’s office (MCSO), jail, and house of corruption. Our coverage of county sheriff budget troubles gives a glimpse into where sheriff Earnell Lucas spends the $124 million the county sheriff’s office (MCSO) received last year (hint: they spend it on extorting targeted county residents for even more money). 

This year, county executive David Crowley is trying to give the sheriff’s office a raise. His proposed budget increases MCSO funds by 6%, or $2.9 million. Most of this money will be used to lure more people into being jailers. As with the common council, county board supervisors have a habit of funding law enforcement even when the public is clearly demanding the opposite. 

Cell in the county jail where MCSO staff killed Terrill Thomas by depriving him of water in 2016.

Milwaukee’s Democratic Socialists of America have put out a sign-on letter demanding the county board change course this year. Please encourage any organization, volunteer project, business, or civic group you are a part of to sign-on. 

Left to their own devices, the common council and county board will continue depriving our youth of what they need. They’ll keep spending money on MPD and MCSO, who extort people, disrupt community, separate families, and round up kids, often sending them to be abused in youth prisons. 

We absolutely must fight them. Please join and help expand the efforts to defund law enforcement on both the city and county levels, now. Free up the money needed to truly support troubled kids and ensure public safety in Milwaukee. If we successfully defund law enforcement institutions and invest in real public safety for our kids and families, then the prisons will empty of Milwaukee residents regardless of what games the governor and the legislature are playing. 

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