Despite pushback from residents and others over the proposal to build a new youth correctional facility at 7930 W. Clinton Ave., on the city’s Northwest Side, Sen. Lena Taylor firmly believes the plan will come to fruition.
“Oh yes,” said Taylor, D-Milwaukee, when asked if she thought final approval was imminent for the $42 million project.
“We’re not just doing it because we want to do it, we’re doing it because we’re acting on legislation,” she said.
Taylor, who represents the 4th Senate District, was referring to Act 185, prompted after years of investigations and lawsuits related to allegations of abuse and excessive use of force at the Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake youth prisons. Passed unanimously by the state Legislature in 2018, Act 185 ordered the replacement of those facilities with smaller regional facilities, which would keep youths closer to home and provide more access to programming.
Plans to build a new facility in Milwaukee County were put on hold after the state’s Joint Finance Committee cut funds for the proposed project in 2020. They were revived last year when officials proposed using the Felmers O. Chaney Correctional Center, 2825 N. 30th St., as a site. The center offers work release and other programs to people who have been convicted of a crime.
Taylor, along with others, including the Felmers O. Chaney Advocacy Board, advocated against tearing down and replacing Felmers Chaney with a youth facility but supported using the Clinton Avenue site.
Taylor hosted a public meeting last month at Abundant Faith Church of Integrity, 7830 W. Good Hope Road, to discuss the plan with residents. Most of the feedback that day came from individuals who opposed the proposal.
“When we dug down into why, the sentiment was ‘not in my backyard,’” she said.
Wendy Volz Daniels, chair of the Felmers O. Chaney Advocacy Board, said she’s also made efforts to talk with concerned residents and others and explain to them that a new facility wouldn’t negatively impact neighborhood safety. She’s also asking seniors to consider working with the youths who would be housed there.
“You are the elders. You have a lot of wisdom to share with these young people,” she said she tells them.
As work continues to ease concerns and gain support from residents and others in the area, several other hurdles remain before ground can be broken on a new facility.
The first is approval to rezone the proposed property by the Common Council, which has expressed support for the site.
According to Ald. Michael Murphy, before the Zoning, Neighborhoods & Development Committee and, ultimately, the full Common Council can complete that process, the proposal needs to be reviewed by the City Plan Commission.
Although the City Plan Commission is a recommending body and doesn’t have the last say on whether or not a facility can be built there, it is influential in these matters.
Jonathan Fera, communications and marketing officer for the Department of City Development, said the file was just introduced to the Common Council, and staff has yet to determine a date for a City Plan Commission hearing. In addition, he said, the commission does not have exhibits from the project team yet.
“The City Plan Commission members have not seen anything regarding this proposal, other than what’s been previously shared with the public,” Fera wrote in an email to NNS.
After city approval is secured, the Wisconsin Department of Corrections must host a public listening session regarding the project. Once a site is selected and the design is at or near completion, the plan will then go to the State Building Commission for approval and to request authority to construct.
Next, the state’s Department of Administration and Department of Corrections will work together to finalize the details and put out a formal bid to seek contractors for the project. Finally, once a contractor has been selected and contracts finalized, the state can begin construction of a new youth correctional facility in Milwaukee.
It will likely be years before a new facility opens, Taylor acknowledged. But she said it is one of several things that need to be done to help improve outcomes for local youths involved in the justice system.
“I want us to invest appropriately and create an environment for people to succeed,” she said. “We need to be able to provide them with cultural programming close to home and help provide a better environment for them when they get out.”