MADISON — The Republican leader of the Wisconsin Senate said Wednesday that the state’s juvenile prison has “been a mess for some time” and that Gov. Scott Walker’s administration should have done more to fix the problems earlier.
Walker’s response to allegations of inmate abuse at the Lincoln Hills juvenile prison in Irma is an issue in his re-election bid this year against Democrat Tony Evers, the state schools chief. Democrats have long faulted Walker for not doing enough to fix problems at the prison, which has been under criminal investigation for more than three years.
Walker and Republicans are trying to focus on Evers’ decision not to revoke the license of a teacher who was fired after viewing pornographic images on his work computer. Evers argued that he didn’t have power under the law to do it.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, during a conference call Wednesday focused on Evers, was asked about whether Walker had done enough to address issues at Lincoln Hills.
“Obviously Lincoln Hills has been a mess,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s been a mess for some time.”
Fitzgerald said he hoped that the Department of Corrections, which is a part of Walker’s administration, could have taken care of issues there earlier.
“I’m not necessarily shocked, but very disappointed, that more action wasn’t taken directly by DOC at the time,” he said.
Corrections Department spokesman Tristan Cook did not react specifically to Fitzgerald’s statements, but instead listed a series of improvements that have been made at the prison in recent years and said making additional changes remains a “key focus.”
The Lincoln Hills juvenile prison in Irma has been under federal investigation since December 2015, about a year after a state probe began. A Racine County judge sent Walker a letter in 2012 outlining his concerns with how prison staff responded after an inmate was sexually assaulted by his roommate and knocked out.
But Walker has said he never saw the letter, which aides said was received but never given to the governor.
Earlier this year, Wisconsin prison officials reached a legal settlement to end a federal lawsuit that enacts widespread changes in disciplinary tactics at the prison. In March, the state reached an $18.9 million settlement with one former juvenile inmate who suffered brain damage after she tried to hang herself in her cell.
Shortly after that settlement was reached, Walker signed a bill unanimously passed by the Legislature to close the Lincoln Hills prison by 2021 and replace it with smaller, regional prisons.