Friday, September 17, 2021
By Emilio DeTorre, Milwaukee Turners; Shannon Ross, The Community; and Molly Collins, Felmers Chaney Advocacy Board
There is currently a conversation happening about closing and demolishing the Felmers O. Chaney Correctional Center and using that space to open a type 1 youth facility to finally deliver on the legislature’s promise to close Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake Youth prisons. We think this is a false choice Milwaukee shouldn’t have to make. We believe that it is possible to find a site for the youth facility, in or near the city of Milwaukee, and that our community and political leaders can agree on a location that isn’t at the expense of another important service.
It is absolutely critical that we close the Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake youth prisons. The children who are there need to be in smaller facilities, closer to their families and communities, rather than more than four hours north, where they can’t receive the help they need. Because of state law requiring the existence of a type 1 facility, we can’t close that prison without opening a new one. But we don’t need to close the Chaney center to do so.
The Chaney Center provides critical pre-release services, with 100 beds for men returning to our community from prison. While people are there, they can get substance abuse or mental health treatment, find employment and housing, and be in a supportive environment while they get back on their feet. These are essential services and help people rejoin our community and improve their success and healthy connection to their families and neighborhoods, which makes us all safer.
More people in the Wisconsin prison system return to Milwaukee county than any other county in the state. The Chaney Center allows them to successfully reintegrate through a variety of programs designed to produce successful reentry into the city. This includes providing comprehensive fatherhood programming, family support within proximity of their families, interactive off-site events, public speaking and volunteering opportunities in the community, custom employment prospects, and a variety of substance abuse and mental health treatment offerings. One man who is currently there is beginning a career in Computer Automated Drafting, which he learned during his sentence. Opportunities like this that are difficult to impossible at other work centers, yet they are exactly what we need for returning citizens so they can have the sustainable structure that will make them not only refrain from crime upon release, but become assets and leaders in Milwaukee.
Both Governor Evers and former Governor Walker called for the closing of Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake youth prisons. The Wisconsin State legislature has failed to put the appropriate money in the budget to create an alternative to this violent site that was found to be unsafe for children and adults, and that neglected to provide the necessary social or educational services for the children in the state’s care.
The Chaney Center has long been considered by men who resided there to offer the best support for a successful return to Milwaukee in contrast to the state’s other facilities. To remove it in order to provide a safer and improved environment for incarcerated children is a ridiculous trade off, and one for which there exists many other alternatives. We do not believe that Milwaukee has no commercial or public real estate that can be developed into a more supportive and appropriate environment for our children. We do not believe that the Chaney Center must be destroyed to offer a successful local alternative for Lincoln Hills.
We should not reduce the number of available pre-release beds in our community because we can’t agree on a suitable location for a new youth facility. We have to do better and serve both groups of people who need help.