Joel Kleefisch pushes GOP to address abuse at youth prisons

Todd Richmond, AP writer

Two lawmakers have launched a bipartisan effort to address child abuse allegations at Wisconsin’s troubled youth prisons after a year of inaction by Republicans in the Legislature.

Republican state Rep. Joel Kleefisch and Democratic Sen. LaTonya Johnson of Milwaukee introduced a bill last week that would require guards to report any incidents of child abuse to child welfare workers or police— or else face fines and jail time.

Wisconsin law protects mandatory reporters from being fired. Workers in nearly 30 professions are considered mandatory reporters under Wisconsin law, including doctors, nurses and teachers.

But not prison guards.

“To me it’s just simple common-sense legislation,” Johnson said Jan. 27.

Word broke in December 2015 that the state Department of Justice had been investigating allegations of widespread abuse at the Irma prison, which houses the Lincoln Hills School for boys and the Copper Lake School for girls. The FBI has since taken over the investigation.

No one has been charged yet. Several state prison officials have resigned or retired.

Still, Scott Walker has yet to visit the prison and the GOP-controlled Legislature has yet to pass any legislation addressing anything at the prison.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the aisle, minority Democrats introduced a dozen bills as the legislative session ended last spring, including measures to require more on-the-job training for guards, outlaw solitary confinement for minors and study creating smaller youth prisons around the state. Republican leadership blocked the legislation from moving forwar.

Kleefisch’s support could give the mandatory reporting bill some legs. The Oconomowoc Republican sits on the Assembly’s corrections committee and chairs the natural resources committee.

“I’m more than happy to agree with a good idea whether it comes from Democrats or Republicans,” Kleefisch said. “Children, regardless of who’s taking care of them or watching them, deserve a higher level of care. That includes reporting when they’re abused.”

Spokeswomen for Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and Walker didn’t immediately return messages to comment on the bill.

Robert Allen, a spokesman for the union that represents prison guards in Wisconsin, had no immediate comment on it.

The measure comes as Walker’s administration prepares to defend itself against a federal lawsuit alleging guards at Irma have subjected inmates to cruel and unusual punishment. The lawsuit, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Juvenile Law Center, alleges guards needlessly place children in solitary confinement and use pepper spray on them too much.