MADISON, Wis. (AP) - Gov. Scott Walker called on the Republican-controlled Legislature on Tuesday to act this year on converting Wisconsin’s troubled youth prison to an adult facility, a faster time frame than he originally proposed just two weeks ago.
The greater urgency comes amid Democratic criticism of Walker for initially saying that he wouldn't request $80 million in funding to create five new regional juvenile prisons until 2019, assuming he wins re-election in November. But Walker on Tuesday called for the Legislature to adopt his plan this spring rather than next year.
“Both Republicans and Democrats collaborated on this plan and agreed it offers the best way forward,” Walker said in a statement. “Together we can move this through the Legislature to improve juvenile corrections and treatment through transitioning to smaller, more regional corrections facilities and focusing on mental health and trauma-informed care.”
Walker’s plan calls for removing juveniles from the Lincoln Hills-Copper Lake juvenile prison north of Irma and converting that into an adult medium-security prison. Five new smaller, regional male juvenile prisons will be built along with a new, expanded mental health hospital in Madison for females.
Walker said Tuesday that his administration would issue a bid request by Jan. 22 to select an architecture-engineering firm to develop the concept for the new juvenile justice facilities. The firm would be selected in October.
Democrats and other critics have said Walker is moving too slowly to address problems at Lincoln Hills, which has been the subject of a federal investigation into inmate abuse for three years and is the subject of multiple federal lawsuits alleging wrongdoing.
Workers at the prison have also complained about increasingly dangerous conditions, especially since a federal court order last summer severely curtailing the use of solitary confinement, arm and leg restraints and pepper spray.
Assembly Republicans are also working on a bill that would take oversight of the state’s most serious juvenile offenders away from the Department of Corrections and give it to county governments.
Democratic Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling said that Democrats had been ignored by Walker and Republicans for years while they raised concerns about Lincoln Hills.
“Their inaction has only made problems worse,” Shilling said. “While Democrats have offered this solution and others since 2011, we have been ignored as the facility has grown more dangerous. ... Lives are at stake and Gov. Walker’s political ambitions are his only concern.”