MADISON — Officials with Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers' administration told lawmakers Tuesday that closure of the state's troubled juvenile prisons needs 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 Tuesday meeting 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 multiple lawsuits, which motivated lawmakers and then-Gov. Scott Walker to take action last year.
The Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake prisons are now set to close by 2021, per the law passed last year and signed by Walker. The prisons, north of Wausau in Irma, are to be replaced by smaller, regional facilities. Many are to be run by county governments.
In Tuesday's meeting, Evers administration officials told lawmakers that the timeline for closure could not be met, Schraa said. Instead, Evers will propose moving closure 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 Wisconsin Counties Association lobbyist Kyle Christianson. "I think everybody understands and recognizes the difficulty of the current timeline."
Christianson said it 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 include 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 the closure plan, but said the $80 million allocated was not enough and more time was needed. Schraa said they didn't discuss anything related to the funding at Tuesday's meeting, which he said was attended by officials from the Department of Corrections and Evers' budget office.
The future of the prisons was a campaign issue for Evers, who vowed to tour them 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 a crisis 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 tried to hang herself in her cell. Another federal lawsuit resulted in orders that the state dramatically reduce its use of pepper spray, solitary confinement and shackles on inmates. 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 be in compliance with the federal court order.
As of last week, there were 133 male inmates at Lincoln Hills and 15 female inmates at Copper Lake.