By SCOTT BAUER, Associated Press
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Officials in Gov. Tony Evers’ administration told lawmakers on Tuesday that plans to close the state’s juvenile prisons ought to be delayed by two years, pushing back the 2021 deadline in state law that the Legislature unanimously approved last year.
Republican Rep. Michael Schraa, chairman of the Assembly Corrections Committee, was part of the meeting on Tuesday and said Evers officials said the original timeline “was not going to work.”
“I’m flabbergasted,” said Republican Sen. Van Wanggaard, who worked with Schraa on the bill requiring the prisons to close. “This is just absolutely unbelievable. … All of sudden we’re just going to move this back two years, doesn’t make any sense to me.”
The prisons have been under criminal investigation for four years over allegations of child neglect and prisoner abuse. They are also the subject of various lawsuits, which motivated lawmakers and then-Gov. Scott Walker to take action last year.
The law signed by Walker requires the Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake prisons to close by 2021. The prisons, north of Wausau in Irma, are to be replaced by smaller, regional centers. Many are to be run by county governments.
In the meeting on Tuesday, Evers administration officials told lawmakers that the timeline for the closings could not be met, Schraa said. Instead, Evers will propose moving the deadline back by two years, to 2023, a change the Legislature would have to approve.
“The governor, members of the Legislature, and stakeholders have all been consistent in saying that the state needs more time and money to safely and responsibly close Lincoln Hills,” said Evers’ spokeswoman, Melissa Baldauff. “We are now working with stakeholders to determine a realistic timeline.”
Democratic state Rep. Evan Goyke, of Milwaukee, who was also in the meeting, said Evers was not trying to delay, but was being realistic about how long it would take to close and replace the juvenile prisons. Goyke said he didn’t know if it would take two more years, but it could.
“It would be incredibly difficult for counties to basically have their facilities up and running by the time Lincoln Hills was scheduled to close,” said Kyle Christianson, a lobbyist for the Wisconsin Counties Association. “I think everybody understands and recognizes the difficulty of the current timeline.”
Christianson said closing the prisons would take at least a year longer than originally planned, but he did not know how long the delay would have to be.
Schraa and Goyke said they are working on a bill that would establish a new timeline.
“I want this to be done right,” Schraa said.
Evers visited Lincoln Hills during his first week in office and voiced support for closing it and Copper Lake, but said the $80 million allocated was not enough and more time was needed. Schraa said the officials who met on Tuesday, who included officials from the Department of Corrections and Evers’ budget office, didn’t discuss anything having to do with money.
The future of the prisons was discussed often on the campaign trail by Evers, who vowed to tour Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake during his first week in office. Walker never visited any Wisconsin prison during his eight years as governor.
“They beat Gov. Walker up on this thing, left and right, every moment,” Wanggaard said. “If it’s (open) one day longer than it needs to be, that’s too long.”
Baldauff, Evers’ spokeswoman, said he inherited an emergnecy and “now must do the work of addressing these serious problems.”
Last year, the state agreed to pay $18.9 million under a settlement with one former juvenile inmate who suffered brain damage after she had tried to hang herself in her cell. Another federal lawsuit resulted in orders that the state reduce its use of pepper spray, solitary confinement and shackles.
That was brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin and Juvenile Law Center.
An independent prison expert is monitoring prison conditions as part of that case. Earlier this month, she issued her first report, saying some progress has been made but that there still is work to do to comply with the federal court order.
By last week, there were 133 male inmates at Lincoln Hills and 15 female inmates at Copper Lake.