- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 19, 2016

MILWAUKEE (AP) - Abuse allegations at a state youth prison in northern Wisconsin have led to overcrowding and understaffing at a Milwaukee County juvenile detention center because county officials no longer want to transfer young offenders to the troubled northern facility, according to an internal memo.

The memo from Milwaukee County Health & Human Services Director Hector Colon to County Executive Chris Abele says the county’s juvenile facility has been over capacity 33 times this year, and some youths have been forced to sleep on foam rubber mats.

State and federal investigators have been looking into allegations of abuse by staff at the state’s Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls, in Irma, 30 miles north of Wausau.

In February, Milwaukee County supervisors voted to declare a state of emergency at the state’s troubled youth prisons and release $500,000 to seek alternative housing for offenders held at the Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake facilities. Milwaukee County Chief Judge Maxine Aldridge White sent a letter to county officials saying young people sentenced to the Irma youth prisons aren’t getting appropriate care.

Teams from Milwaukee County interview and assess the youth to determine if their behavioral needs can be met outside of a prison, said Mark Mertens, administrator of Health & Human Services’ Delinquency and Court Services Division. Milwaukee County has authority to ask for the youth to be returned to the county, and a judge then hears a motion to amend the court order and return the youth for treatment, Mertens said.

The memo said 49 youths were transferred from the state facility to Milwaukee County juvenile detention in the first three months of 2016 and stayed an average of 21 days while waiting for their cases to be reviewed. By comparison, the average length of stay for juveniles in the third quarter of 2015 was nearly 6 days.

The sudden rise in detainees at Milwaukee County’s juvenile facility has necessitated excessive mandatory overtime, causing stress among staff, Colon wrote. Juvenile corrections officers can be mandated to work double shifts with time off canceled.

“Combined with overcrowding conditions, this environment can create a heightened risk of incidents,” Colon told Abele in the memo. He did not elaborate.

The county Delinquency and Court Services Division has been working to identify which youth can be considered for possible release to alternative programs, Colon wrote. And, county officials are working with Racine County to possibly place a limited number of youth at its detention facility.

The memo, provided to The Associated Press by the Department of Health & Human Services, was first reported on by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

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