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It’s been a couple years since news broke about allegations of inmate abuse at two state-run juvenile prisons in northern Wisconsin. Still, concerns remain about the safety of the teens — and staff — at the boys’ prison, Lincoln Hills, and the neighboring facility for girls, Copper Lake.

Tuesday, Lincoln Hills was put on lockdown, so staff could search for weapons and contraband. Since the start of the investigation, some elected officials have pushed for alternatives to the juvenile prisons. Progress has been slow.

Democratic State Senator Lena Taylor of Milwaukee argues the abuse of juveniles and the attacks on staff are two sides of the same coin.

“The public safety issues revolve around not having enough staffing. It revolves around not having quality training for the staff. And as a result, that creates environments for them that are not even necessarily safe. And so, it’s not a healthy environment for employees or individuals that are incarcerated,” Taylor says.

Taylor says she plans to reintroduce legislation to close Lincoln Hills, and legislation that would give Milwaukee County more control. Meanwhile, Milwaukee County says it’s no longer waiting on permission from the state to act. Mark Mertens runs the county’s delinquency and court services division.

“Mostly, our strategy right now is around using the alternatives that we have in the community,” Mertens says.

Mertens says Milwaukee County has made a big dent in the number of youth sent to Lincoln Hills. At the start of last year, there were 125. Now, the number sits at around 55.

“Some are going to different out-of-home placements, residential placements. Some are being served in the community with programs like Running Rebels where other clinical services that they’re getting in the community along with supervision, sometimes even intensive supervision programs,” Mertens says.

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