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AG: Don’t close troubled youth prison without alternative

Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel addresses the audience that gathered in January 2015 for his inauguration ceremony at the Capitol in Madison. Schimel says he would support closing the state's troubled youth prison if corrections officials could find another way to handle serious juvenile offenders. Schimel's DOJ began investigating allegations of widespread abuse at the prison outside Irma in 2015. (AP Photo/Andy Manis, File)

Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel addresses the audience that gathered in January 2015 for his inauguration ceremony at the Capitol in Madison. Schimel says he would support closing the state’s troubled youth prison if corrections officials could find another way to handle serious juvenile offenders. Schimel’s DOJ began investigating allegations of widespread abuse at the prison outside Irma in 2015. (AP File Photo/Andy Manis)

By TODD RICHMOND
Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel says he would support closing the state’s troubled youth prison if corrections officials could find another way to handle serious juvenile offenders but that no good alternatives have emerged yet.

Schimel’s stance aligns him closer with Democrats who have demanded the Department of Corrections close the prison outside Irma. It also puts him at odds with Gov. Scott Walker, who has expressed confidence in DOC Secretary Jon Litscher’s efforts to manage the center despite a federal lawsuit over guards’ tactics and continuing reports of prisoners abusing staff.

“To get sent to juvenile corrections, you have to earn it,” Schimel said during a year-end interview with The Associated Press. “It takes either an awful lot of bad behavior or some really shocking behavior. Those kids are going to need to go somewhere for rehabilitation, for punishment. We don’t have another alternative right now.”

The Republican attorney general said state officials in Missouri have an alternative system that has merit but he’s not sure it would work in Wisconsin. Missouri officials place youth offenders in smaller, regional centers close to their homes. Some centers don’t have fences. Others are in state parks.

Schimel said most of Wisconsin’s juvenile offenders come from Milwaukee and there aren’t enough offenders from other parts of the state to justify building regional centers. He said perhaps the real remedy lies in dealing with Milwaukee’s children’s needs as early as possible in the hope of and keeping them out of the criminal-justice system.

“Milwaukee has got to start addressing those problems earlier … and deal with the underlying problem,” Schimel said.

Word broke in late 2015 that Schimel’s Department of Justice had been investigating widespread allegations of prisoner-on-staff and staff-on-prisoner abuse at the prison outside Irma. The FBI has since taken over the probe and a federal judge last summer ordered guards to greatly reduce their use of pepper spray, mechanical restraints and solitary confinement.

The trouble at the prison has only grown worse; staff workers assert the judge’s order has emboldened inmates to attack them. Most recently, an inmate punched a teacher in October and knocked her unconscious. In August, inmates climbed onto the prison’s roof and started throwing shingles and pieces of metal at guards. Walker has refused to visit the prison, saying he has faith in Litscher.

A spokesman for Walker referred a request for comment to the DOC spokesman Tristan Cook. He said in an email that the agency has increased training for guards and mental-health services for inmates and is working on unspecified “further enhancements.”

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