- Views & Opinions
Gov. Scott Walker’s budget would keep Wisconsin’s troubled youth prison open but doesn’t provide nearly enough funding to meet federal staffing requirements.
It also orders no systemic changes despite an FBI investigation into alleged inmate abuse and two lawsuits challenging conditions at the remote facility.
The budget the governor unveiled makes no mention of problems at the prison in the woods outside Irma in northern Wisconsin.
The spending plan lays out about $2 million to create eight new guard positions, three new mental health specialist positions for the prison’s female wing and convert nine contract nursing positions to state positions.
But even with the new positions, the boys’ side of the prison would be about 50 guards short of staff-to-inmate ratios mandated by the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act.
Walker, a Republican, rejected a Department of Corrections request for $3.7 million for serious juvenile offender care and community supervision and made no move toward returning prison inmates to a facility in Milwaukee County, where most of the prison’s inmates are from, even though Walker said in December he was open to such a transfer.
“This is literally as anemic as it gets,” state Rep. Evan Goyke, a Milwaukee Democrat, said. “It’s as if nothing has ever happened at that prison.”
Walker spokesman Tom Evenson said the budget builds on reforms DOC has already made at the prison. DOC spokesman Tristan Cook said those include a review of policies in the Division of Juvenile Corrections, a new pre-service training academy for new guards and regional efforts to recruit staff that have helped reduce the number of vacancies from 34 to 23 over the last year.
Cook said the number of guards the boys’ wing needs to satisfy federal ratios was based on population estimates that have fallen since they were first made. He said DOC will determine whether the ratios need adjusting before they go into effect in October. He added that the girls’ wing is already in compliance with PREA ratios.
“DOC is committed to a safe and secure environment for all youth in DOC custody,” Cook said.
The prison has been a flashpoint of controversy since December 2015, when word broke state agents had been investigating allegations of inmate abuse for the past year. The FBI has taken over the investigation. No one has been charged but Corrections Secretary Ed Wall resigned as questions about the prison’s conditions intensified.
The American Civil Liberties Union and the Juvenile Law Center filed a federal lawsuit in January asking a judge to limit solitary confinement, and the use of pepper spray at the prison. A former inmate who suffered brain damage in a suicide attempt in her cell has her own federal lawsuit, alleging staff failed to prevent her attempt.
Despite the investigation and the lawsuits, Republicans who control the Legislature introduced bills earlier this month that could land more children in the prison and keep them there longer. The measures would expand the list of crimes that qualify for incarceration at the facility and allow juveniles to be held at the prison for more than three years, the current limit.
Republican Rep. Joel Kleefisch and Democratic Sen. LaTonya Johnson have introduced a bill that would make guards at the prison mandatory child abuse reporters. Goyke said he plans to introduce a bill that would create regional juvenile detention centers and transform the prison into a treatment center for drunken drivers. That measure has almost no chance of passing given Republican control of both chambers.
Walker’s budget does little to help the situation, said Juvenile Law Center attorney Jessica Feierman.
“This proposal would still leave the (prison) so severely underfunded and understaffed that they are not even in compliance with federal standards,” Feierman said in an email to The Associated Press. “A smarter approach would be to spend money on programs that work, serving young people in their homes or communities, and relying on evidence-based approaches to juvenile justice.”
The budget is far from finished. The document now goes to the Legislature’s finance committee, which will spend the spring rewriting it. Spokespeople for the committee’s co-chairs, Rep. John Nygren and Sen. Alberta Darling, didn’t immediately respond to an email message seeking comment on the prison’s budget.