The state Senate passed a bill Wednesday that would make correctional officers in juvenile prisons mandatory reporters for child abuse and neglect.
The legislation was prompted by a lengthy investigation into allegations of systemic problems at the Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake Schools, youth prisons for boys and girls, respectively, run by the Wisconsin Department of Corrections.
Under the bill, introduced by 10 Democratic state senators, juvenile correctional officers would be responsible for directly disclosing instances of abuse to state authorities. The purpose of designating certain officials as mandatory reporters is to require them to go to the police rather than simply telling their bosses about abuse or neglect.
If the mandated reporters fail to report instances of abuse, they can face criminal penalties.
The facilities are located outside of Irma, in northern Wisconsin, and have been subject to an investigation from the state Department of Justice, which was later joined by the FBI. Claims of wide-ranging problems, including improperly trained staff, failure to document incidents of abuse or neglect and use of solitary confinement have been leveled against the prisons for years.
Despite the ongoing probes into practices at Lincoln Hills, the situation does not appear to have improved. Two federal lawsuits have been brought against the Department of Corrections, one alleging guards did not heed warning signs of an inmate who later attempted suicide, and another brought by the ACLU accusing guards of routinely pepper spraying inmates for minor rules violations.
While the need to address the problems in Wisconsin’s juvenile prisons has received wide bipartisan support in both the Senate and Assembly, some legislators, such as Sen. Lena Taylor, D-Milwaukee, feel the recent bill does not go far enough.
“We must stop the abuse before it begins. We need to stop the over-incarceration of our juveniles, and we must stop placing our children in solitary confinement and adding trauma upon trauma,” Sen. Taylor said in a press release.
The bill is now under consideration by the Assembly, and is expected to be passed and later signed by Gov. Scott Walker.