Milwaukee site chosen for Lincoln Hills/Copper Lake replacement facility
By Jalen Maki
Tomahawk Leader Editor
MILWAUKEE – The site for a new Type 1 juvenile detention center that will replace the Lincoln Hills/Copper Lake facility in Irma has been selected.
Governor Tony Evers announced on Tuesday, Aug. 9 that the Wisconsin Department of Corrections (DOC) had chosen the site, located at 7930 W. Clinton Ave. in Milwaukee.
A release from Evers’ office called the announcement of the new site “a major step in the long-obstructed efforts to close Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls, restructure Wisconsin’s youth justice system, and responsibly move kids in DOC care closer to home as soon and as safely as possible.”
The Wisconsin Department of Administration (DOA) recently negotiated an agreement for the acquisition of the site, and the Milwaukee Common Council last week voted to provide initial support for the site, allowing the state to initiate the process toward building a new facility.
In April, Evers signed Senate Bill 520, which allocated nearly $42 million to the construction of a facility designated to replace Lincoln Hills/Copper Lake. Under the bill, the Irma facility will be repurposed as an adult correctional institution.
The bill received bipartisan support, unanimously passing the State Assembly and the State Senate in February.
Lincoln Hills/Copper Lake history
The signing of Senate Bill 520 and Evers’ announcement of the Milwaukee site’s selection came after years of allegations of abuse brought by both inmates and staff at Lincoln Hills.
Federal investigators raided the embattled Irma facility in 2015 amid claims that staff had used excessive force. The raid preceded several lawsuits brought by youth who had been housed at the facility, and over the next four years, millions of dollars in legal settlements against the State of Wisconsin were reached.
U.S. District Judge James Peterson ruled in June 2017 that DOC would be required to restrict the use of solitary confinement, pepper spray and restraints used on youth at Lincoln Hills/Copper Lake.
Peterson deemed the punishments and actions at the facility “a violation of the youth’s constitutional rights” and called the extended use of solitary confinement “severe and damaging.”
In Oct. 2017, a female instructor at Lincoln Hills was assaulted by an incarcerated youth. The instructor, who was transported by ambulance to a medical facility after reportedly being punched in the face, later said she would not suffer permanent physical damage as a result of the assault, although she indicated she would seek counseling due to worry of developing post traumatic stress disorder.
State legislators voted in 2018 to close the youth detention center and replace it with a total of six regional state- and county-run facilities. Evers later signed into law a July 1, 2021 deadline to shutter the facility, but the state ultimately did not meet the deadline after Legislative Republicans rejected plans to fund the state-run facilities.
In April 2019, a four-plus-year investigation into alleged civil rights violations by Lincoln Hills employees found insufficient evidence to establish that staff had violated civil rights statutes. The investigation was conducted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Wisconsin, the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
Efforts to close the Irma facility ramped up again this year with the introduction and signing of Senate Bill 520 and the selection of the Milwaukee site.
Following the enactment of the 2021-23 biennial state budget, DOC began plans to pursue converting the Felmers O. Chaney Correctional Center in Milwaukee into a Type 1 facility. In Feb. 2022, DOC began evaluating other sites after hearing concerns from stakeholders and the city of Milwaukee regarding the proposal.
The W. Clinton Ave. site was one of several suggested by youth justice advocates, legislators and other stakeholders
According to the release, the property emerged as a viable site with a private owner open to selling. As of July 28, the Evers administration had signed an agreement for the acquisition of the site, pending completion of statutory and other legal requirements and obtaining the necessary local approval in the site selection process.
“Despite delays in funding and continued obstruction over the past three years, we’ve been adamant that Wisconsin needs to move as quickly as possible to build a new Type 1 juvenile facility in southeast Wisconsin so we can close Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake and get our kids closer to home as soon as we safely and responsibly can,” Evers stated. “Today’s important announcement means we are one major step closer to getting kids out of these facilities, and we are incredibly grateful that the city of Milwaukee recognizes the importance of moving forward to do just that.”