A year ago, the Juvenile Law Center and the ACLU filed a class-action lawsuit against the Wisconsin Department of Corrections (DOC) over conditions at the Lincoln Hills School for Boys and the Copper Lake School for Girls.
The facilities had already been under investigation by the Justice Department since 2015. The central issues in the lawsuit: somewhere between 15 and 20 percent of the juveniles held in the facilities were living in solitary confinement, and there was rampant use of chemical restraints to control behavior.
Advocates who joined the litigators in announcing the lawsuit held out no hope for reform of the facilities; they wanted them closed. One year later, it appears they will get their wish.
The DOC announced today that it would gradually shutter the two facilities and transfer youth to several smaller facilities closer to their homes. The majority of offenders housed in the two facilities are from the Milwaukee area, 200 miles from Lincoln Hills, and Copper Lake.
The decision comes six months after a federal judge granted an injunction based on the class action lawsuit, which decreed the DOC’s reliance on solitary and chemicals to violate the constitutional rights of the juveniles in the two facilities.
What comes next will be the subject of much discussion among national and state juvenile justice advocates. At last year’s announcement of the lawsuit, in January 2017, Youth Justice Milwaukee organizer Jeffery Roman called for replacing the large facilities with smaller, community-based programs near Wisconsin’s six most populous counties.
A month earlier, in December 2016, Gov. Scott Walker mentioned the possibility of re-opening the Ethan Allen School, a juvenile facility outside of Milwaukee that was closed due to budget cuts in 2011. The facility has been mothballed for more than six years, and would require significant cleaning and renovation.
“While this is a step in the right direction, we will continue to pay attention to how young people are treated while they are moved from the current facilities,” said Larry Dupuis, legal director of ACLU of Wisconsin, in a statement issued after today’s decision. “Our lawsuit is against the Department of Corrections officials … and we will continue to fight to ensure that any resolution of our lawsuit protects these children where they are now as well as at the new facilities.”