New youth prison in Milwaukee County; Assembly approves funding

The state Assembly unanimously approved a bill Thursday that would fund a new youth prison to replace the state’s troubled facility in northern Wisconsin after a Republican gubernatorial hopeful urged lawmakers to finally take action after years of delays.

The legislation would allow the state to borrow $42 million for building a new youth prison in Milwaukee County. The bill doesn't specify a location but would make construction contingent upon approval from local government officials in whatever jurisdiction ultimately hosts the facility. The existing facility in Irma would be converted to an adult institution.

The Assembly passed the measure late Thursday evening. The Senate passed the bill Tuesday but didn’t include the local government site approval or the language converting the existing prison to an adult facility. That means the Senate will have to take up the bill again to approve those changes.

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Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said Tuesday that he didn't think the proposal would pass because it would be hard to approve money without a site for a new facility. Vos said on the Assembly floor he changed his mind after receiving a letter from Republican gubernatorial candidate Rebecca Kleefisch urging him to move forward with the bill because the state needs more capacity to house adult offenders in the face of rising crime.

The Legislature four years ago vote to close the Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake juvenile prisons that share a campus in Irma. But lawmakers never came through with the money for a replacement facility.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos

The FBI in 2015 probed allegations of prisoner abuse, sexual assault, witness intimidation and record tampering at Lincoln Hills. The investigation ended in 2019 with no charges filed, but the state Department of Corrections reached settlements totaling more than $25 million in cases brought by inmates’ families.

A federal judge assigned a monitor to assess conditions at the prison as part of a 2017 settlement resolving a lawsuit brought by civil rights and youth advocates.

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