On Monday, 12 female youthful offenders were transferred from Southern Oaks Girls School in Union Grove to the new Copper Lake School on the grounds of Lincoln Hills School in Irma, marking the end of the state’s closure and consolidation plan that brought all of the state’s Level 1 juvenile corrections facilities into one site.
“This is a historic day for the state and the department,” said Department of Corrections Secretary Gary Hamblin at a press conference at the school Monday. “We are proud to open this new chapter in juvenile corrections. It represents the fulfillment of years of hard work at both the state and local level to prevent juvenile crime and reduce juvenile arrest rates.”
The move became necessary to close a $25 million deficit the DOC has run up by 2021. A study looked at which of the two boy’s facility should remain open and could the girl’s facility also be relocated there. The panel conducting the study did not make a formal recommendation, but then Gov. Jim Doyle gave the nod to Lincoln Hills over the Ethan Allen School in Wales.
Hamblin said the consolidation will save the DOC $23 million a year.
“This is the state’s new home for juvenile corrections,” Hamblin said Monday.
About 100 youth were transferred to Lincoln Hills from Ethan Allen in small groups over the last few months. While that was going on, several unused buildings on the grounds were renovated to become Copper Lake School. The smaller girl’s school is completely surrounded by a fence that has a screen on it preventing the boys and girls from seeing each other. In addition to this “sight and sound barrier,” the two populations are never outside at the same time.
Some work still needs to be completed on the Copper Lake grounds, which will be done by bids, some of which may be awarded to local companies. Still the work had proceeded to the point where the 12 remaining youthful offenders from Southern Oaks could be transferred. The DOC had set a goal of having the process complete by July 1. Hamblin said it took a lot of hard work on the part of all members of his department to complete the process on schedule and as efficiently as possible.
The combined Lincoln Hills/Copper Lake schools were necessary because all three facilities were at between 20 and 30 percent capacity. Overall, the number of boys committed to secure detention fell 40 percent while the girl’s rate dropped by 55 percent. Hamblin said this is because the focus in the juvenile justice system is now on those who most need custodial supervision.
“They have the opportunity to learn the skills they need to succeed in life,” Hamblin said.
Lincoln County Circuit Court Judge Jay Tlusty said that locating the combined juvenile facilities in the Irma facility not only helps the troubled youth it houses, it also is a major employer in the area. He said as a youth he remembers when the facility opened in 1970. Some of the families of the employees moved into his neighborhood, giving him new friends to play with. These families bought homes in the Merrill area, enrolled their children in local schools and shopped at local businesses.
“The contributions of the Lincoln Hills staff have been significant over the last 40 years,” Tlusty said.
He said since he became a judge, the emphasis in juvenile corrections is to only incarcerate the more serious, repeat offenders. He said he can remember just one offender he sentenced to Lincoln Hills, but as far as he knows, that experience helped the youth.
Merrill Mayor Bill Bialecki agreed with Tlusty’s assessment of the economic impact of the school on Merrill’s economy, saying that if the decision had been made to shutter Lincoln Hills instead, it would have had a big impact.
“They found their niches in schools, communities and service groups,” Bialecki said. “Their contributions would have been sorely missed.”
Bialecki said while the increase in staff at the combined school will have a positive economic impact on the area, it may be a while before all of the benefits are seen.
LHS/CLS Superintendent Paul Westerhaus said a lot of work went into getting Lincoln Hills ready for Monday’s opening of the girl’s facility. The consolidation resulted in the creation of 90 new jobs, with 79 being new hires from the surrounding area.
“We’re in the middle of interviews, we’re still filling some positions,” Westerhaus said.
Hamblin said of the 292 employees of the now closed southern facilities who were “at risk” to lose their jobs in the consolidation. All but 34 found other jobs through a combination of accelerated job placement programs, transfers to LHS/CLS and other DOC facilities and into other government jobs, along with retirements. He added that the DOC is actively working with those 34 to help them find work.
Westerhaus said the rural setting of the facility is a shock for the majority of the youthful offenders sent to the facility, many of whom are from urban areas in the southeastern part of the state. He said this setting works to the advantage of his staff as they work to rehabilitate the teens.
“Kids feel safe here. They feel secure here. They feel that staff are going to treat them right,” he said.
The treatment programs for both boys and girls are identical but separate. They attend school, where in addition to academic subjects, they are taught life skills such as parenting. They also receive drug and alcohol counseling as well as any psychiatric help that might also help them become more productive members of society.
Westerhaus said one of the challenges of the education component is the various ages and grade level many of the offenders have varies greatly. He said his staff works with the Department of Public Instruction to insure that all of the student’s educational needs are met. There are even periodic high school “graduation ceremonies” where the students even wear cap and gowns and are encouraged to give their own speeches.
“We even have special education services available for those students who require them,” Westerhaus said.
The populations of the two schools are currently 241 at Lincoln Hills and 12 at Copper Lake, which are well below the maximum capacity of 480 and 38, respectively. Because Lincoln Hills was so below capacity, not only could it handle those students from Ethan Allen, they had the vacant buildings to incorporate the girl’s facility there as well. Westerhaus said this was probably a factor in Gov. Doyle’s decision in favor of his facility.