Wisconsin lawmakers offer differing views of youth prison under federal investigation

MADISON -- A Democratic lawmaker said that touring the state's youth prison left him with serious concerns about conditions there while a Republican said he was pleasantly surprised by what he saw.

The Assembly Corrections committee met Thursday to discuss five of its members' tour of the Lincoln Hills youth prison in Irma earlier this week.

The facility is under investigation by the federal government for allegations of widespread abuse and in January the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit on behalf of current and former inmates who say staff members overuse solitary confinement and pepper spray.

"There is so much that still hinders the process of being able to rehabilitate young people in that setting," Democratic Rep. David Bowen of Milwaukee said. Bowen said one teen he spoke to told him he doesn't feel comfortable reporting sexual abuse because he fears retaliation. He also said staff members cried as they described being forced to work extra shifts that result in 16-hour days, making it harder for them to do their jobs effectively.

But Republican Committee Chair Michael Schraa of Oshkosh said the environment there exceeded his expectations and he is encouraged by changes being made by the state's Department of Corrections Secretary Jon Litscher, including use of body cameras.

"I really didn't know what to expect after the ACLU lawsuit and some of the stories floating around," Schraa said. "I felt extremely comfortable leaving there."

While some committee members criticized the use of restrictive housing in which some youth are confined to their units all but one or two hours a day, Schraa said it serves a purpose.

"If you're causing problems and you have behavioral issues, you're going to get less free time," he said. "They're in there for a reason. It's not supposed to be the Taj Mahal."

Schraa said he attributes decreased morale among staff members to not knowing what might come of the ongoing investigations. He said he was pleased to learn that youth not assigned to restrictive housing spend several hours a day in class and that Lincoln Hills isn't just a facility but an "educational process."

Committee member Rep. Evan Goyke of Milwaukee, a Democrat who also attended the tour, said just because the facility looked orderly doesn't mean it's effective.

"What is happening at night when the politicians leave and the lights go out and the staff-to-kid ratio gets much higher?" he asked. Goyke is pushing for Lincoln Hills to be closed and turned into an addiction treatment center for adults. He and Bowen want the nearly 200 youth to be moved into smaller facilities closer to Milwaukee, where many of them are from.

Schraa said it was beneficial for the youth to be hours away from their normal surroundings in a rural setting. But he said he's open to working with the Democrats to develop recommendations for improving conditions at the current facility.