Little progress made in improving youth prison conditions

The Capitol Report

Years after they were slated to close, the state’s youth prisons continue to struggle.

The latest Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake monitor report shows the youth prisons are struggling with a growing population, a lack of staff and increased confinement for youth.

Court-ordered monitor Teresa Abreu in her 13th report found the average youth population in January, February and March rose to the high-60s from the mid-40s in the last report between boys and girls living areas.

The rise in population has been compounded by staffing shortages, leading to more instances of staff confining youth to their rooms than in previous monitoring periods. Abreu in her report said this is the first time she’s seen inadequate staffing levels, and she expects the population trend to continue “into the foreseeable future.”

“The current staffing situation is having a profound negative impact on daily operations, requiring adjustments to the daily schedules to maintain effective staffing ratios for youth supervision,” she wrote.

The previous monitor report covered October, November and December.

Following an investigation over misconduct at Wisconsin youth prisons, a federal court in 2018 ordered Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake boys and girls prisons to undergo independent monitoring. The boy’s and girls’ prisons are located on the same property.

Those investigations found some staff excessively used pepper spray, choke holds and other physical restraints against youth, while some youth inmates physically assaulted staff and threatened them with makeshift weapons such as a metal pipe.

Despite the confinement issues Abreu pointed to, Department of Corrections Division of Juvenile Corrections Administrator Ron Hermes in a DOC press release said his goal is to make sure youth are able to leave their rooms between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. for school and other programming.

But Hermes also said DJC has not been able to meet that goal every day.

The ACLU in a press release argues the “operational room confinement” DOC is using to manage population-to-staff ratios amounts to solitary confinement.

But DOC spokesman John Beard told that youth are allowed out of their rooms as much as safely possible. He added youth are out of their rooms every day for classes either in the school building or in their living units, which include multiple housing rooms.

ACLU Attorney Karyn Rotker also said the recent issues have heightened the need to reduce the number of children in prison.

“This situation is bad for youth, but it is also bad for taxpayers,” Rotker said. “Counties have to spend more than $400,000 annually per youth to house them at Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake.”

Milwaukee County Interim Administrator for Children, Youth and Family Services Kelly Pethke told that in February counties paid a combined rate of $1,154 per day to send youth offenders to Lincoln Hills, Copper Lake or Mendota Mental Health Institute.

DOC Secretary Kevin Carr said the department is continuing to search for more workers as it struggles with high staff vacancy rates across the state.

“Everyone is looking for workers, so we had to offer a more competitive salary,” Carr said. “We thank Gov. Evers and the Legislature for working with us on that. We also hope moving the schools to Milwaukee County, as called for in the legislation Gov. Evers signed earlier this year, will lead to a larger pool of applicants to fill critical roles.”

Abreu also noted an uptick in youth complaints and requests to speak with ACLU legal counsel. They complained about increased room confinement, being denied personal hygiene products, food quality, staff calling them names and using racial and derogatory statements, and staff allowing kids to fight each other, among other things.

“The current staffing situation is having a profound negative impact on daily operations, requiring adjustments to the daily schedules to maintain effective staffing ratios for youth supervision,” Abreu said. “These adjustments have resulted in operational room confinement –that is, confining youth in their rooms not based on behavior but for operational reasons (in this case short staffing)- while attempting to reduce incidents of violence and maintain safety and security.”

Abreu said about 14 youths asked to speak with legal counsel about living unit issues, and many of them expressed concerns over the increased confinement and conditions during confinement they felt were unwarranted.

She said the youth complained very little in previous monitoring periods and that recent complaints were concerning.

She also noted morale among the more than 25 staff she spoke with during her May 5 visit seemed good overall, adding several staff said they truly enjoyed their jobs and the video she reviewed showed many 

regularly engaged with youth.

She also saw several improvements at the facility, including a strong, committed leadership team, creation and implementation of a weekly programming schedule, creation of a new recreation center, and continued in-person education on and off the units, among other things.

For more, visit

The Capitol Report is written by editorial staff at, a nonpartisan, Madison-based news service that specializes in coverage of government and politics, and is distributed for publication by members of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association.

Categories: Forum

Leave a comment (moderated)

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.