Lincoln Hills - Copper Lake

A security fence surrounds the entrance to the Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for girls complex in rural Irma, Wis., in this file photo. 

Photo: Dan Young

Bipartisan legislation was introduced today to close Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake, two controversial and beleaguered youth correctional facilities.

The move comes after years of federal and state investigations into the facilities, and a class action lawsuit filed by the ACLU of Wisconsin and Juvenile Law Center, with pro-bono assistance from Quarles & Brady.

The lawsuit resulted in a preliminary injunction this past summer meant to halt the unconstitutional use of solitary confinement and other inhumane conditions and practices against young people.  

“Closing Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake is the right move,” Jessica Feierman, associate director of Juvenile Law Center, said in a press statement. “However, we urge the legislature to cap the total number of secure beds in the state, and to ensure that any new facilities are small, in keeping with best practices in the field. The goal here shouldn’t be to incarcerate more youth, but rather to move youth out of large facilities where they are at risk of serious harm, and either back to their own homes or into the most family-like setting possible.”

“The legislation also establishes a Council on Juvenile Corrections and a Juvenile Grant Committee. These bodies should include system-involved youth and their families,” added Feierman. “Youth and families bring valuable insights into the needs of youth and the approaches that will work.”

Larry Dupuis, Legal Director at the ACLU of Wisconsin, said in a news release, “While we agree these facilities must be closed as soon as possible, the legislation raises concerns. Bringing youth closer to home is important, but it won’t work without meaningful state-level oversight and accountability. The risk here is that the state will replicate the mistreatment in Lincoln Hills at the new county-level facilities.”

Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake currently incarcerate about 150 children, some as young as 14 years old.

Before the injunction, 15–20 percent of the youths were confined at any given time in solitary confinement cells for 22 or 23 hours a day.

Also, guards kept many of these children in handcuffs attached to a belt around their waists and shackled to a table or desk, during the hour or two they are allowed out of their cells.

Guards throughout Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake also regularly used pepper spray on the youth, causing pain and burning while impairing their breathing and overall health.

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