Clad in a white beekeeping suit, Vic Merrifield led two visitors wearing protective garb into a small enclosure of hives at the Rock County Community Garden.
This is Merrifield’s third year of beekeeping at the county garden on Highway 14 and fifth overall. In that time, he has come to view honeybees as docile insects despite the fact that he has been stung a handful of times.
Concern over the aggressiveness of honeybees and the potential for serious allergic reactions dominated debate earlier this year as Janesville grappled with a proposed backyard beekeeping ordinance.
The city council eventually passed the measure in April, although there was an initial motion to reject it.
Now that backyard beekeeping is regulated and allowed, Merrifield and other beekeepers hope residents welcome bees rather than fear them.
“You’re not going to notice the bees in people’s backyards. Legally, they have to tell you that they’re there,” Merrifield said, referring to a sign requirement in the ordinance.
“But if they didn’t tell you, I can 99.9% tell you, you wouldn’t know your neighbor had a beehive back there. People are going to notice their fruit trees being more plentiful with fruit.”
Honeybees aren’t aggressive like wasps and yellow jackets. Stinging is a last resort because, unlike wasps and yellow jackets, one sting will kill a honeybee, he said.
Merrifield said he can work harmoniously with honeybees. As he pulled apart some of his hives at the county garden, bees hovered nearby but didn’t bother him.
He has six hives on site in various stages of development. Each hive contains frames with premade “foundations” that help the bees form comb.
Bees do this by secreting wax from a chest gland and rubbing their bodies over the foundation. Eventually, this forms the familiar honeycomb pattern, and each cell will be used to store larva or honey, he said.
Merrifield pulled out a frame that contained honey. He allowed a Gazette reporter to take a Winnie the Pooh-esque swipe and taste the delectable, natural honey, untouched by manufacturing processes.
When Merrifield’s demonstration ended, all three people inside the enclosure emerged without being stung.
Will Canada, another Janesville beekeeper, said he sometimes can check his hives without wearing protective equipment. He acknowledged the allergy concern—his wife is allergic to honeybees—but said their relative tameness makes them less likely to sting.
He and Merrifield both said the benefits of pollination and food production outweigh the negatives. Beekeepers are crucial to preserving the bee population, which is struggling because of pesticides and other insects.
A good beekeeper can catch problems before they spread to an entire hive, Merrifield said.
Whether more Janesville residents join the beekeeping ranks is uncertain.
City Clerk-Treasurer Dave Godek said the city has received only one application for a permit, and another person has taken out paperwork. Neither has been approved yet.
That didn’t surprise Godek. Janesville issued only 32 backyard chicken permits, and that ordinance passed four years ago.
Neither Canada nor Merrifield have their permits yet, although both are working on it. Unregulated hives had existed in Janesville prior to the ordinance passing.
Merrifield said even though starting a beehive might seem daunting, organizations such as the Rock County Beekeepers Association can help. The group meets monthly and costs $10 per year for membership.
“People that are into bees want to see bees succeed. You will get somebody to come to your hive to show you what to do and what to look for,” Merrifield said.
“There’s so much support. Starting out, it’s confusing, but there’s enough people to make it more understandable for you.”
State funding for Walworth County Drug Court is at risk because of the program’s low participation, the treatment court coordinator said during a meeting Friday.
For months, the future of the county’s treatment courts, particularly drug court, have been uncertain after District Attorney Zeke Wiedenfeld said he might withdraw his office’s support from the program.
While the uncertainty still exists, more clarity could come later this summer.
Katie Behl, treatment court coordinator, said Friday during the county Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee meeting that they had a May 23 call with the state Department of Justice about Treatment Alternatives and Diversion program funding.
Department of Justice representatives visited Walworth County in March. They attended drug court and reviewed policies and procedures, Behl said.
The county receives $125,000 per year for drug court, which has 14 participants. Its capacity is 25.
Judge Daniel Johnson, who oversees drug court, said the number of participants is “obviously not ideal.” He said the sessions are running much quicker—Thursday’s hearing finished an hour early.
Behl said Department of Justice officials showed concern about the number of participants.
“If our numbers are as low as they are, they’re going to review our application, and our funding will be cut in 2020 as well,” she said.
There were no specifics on what the cuts would look like. Instead, Behl said, they were encouraged to use the funding they have and sort through the ongoing issues before applying again in the fall.
In one example, Behl said, she was recently quoted a price of $55 per drug test per participant if the grant funding is gone. That would mean $5,280 for each OWI court participant (there are 17 now with two potentially joining soon) and nearly $8,000 for each drug court participant if each finishes the program in the minimum amount of time.
“If we lose any of our funding, honestly, from that it would have a global impact on our programs,” she said.
If the program lost its funding, Behl said, she anticipates they could get enough money to allow current participants to finish.
He previously has said he would like more explicit criteria for who can and cannot enter drug court. Such guidelines exist with OWI court in that only third- and fourth-offense intoxicated drivers can enter.
The absence of such criteria for drug court has caused him safety concerns over program participants. Others have pointed out that almost all the program entrants have seen support from all sides.
Reached later Friday, Wiedenfeld said in an email that the focus should not be on grant funding before they can establish “how we can best provide much needed treatment to people who can receive treatment safely within the community.”
Treatment court is not about obtaining grants and is about helping the community, he said. He has said before he supports treatment overall.
Several county officials, including judges, have spoken in favor of treatment courts.
The Walworth County Board in April unanimously passed a resolution showing its support, citing the program’s ability to save tax dollars, reduce recidivism and maintain public safety.
But some criminal justice officials have said support from the DA’s office is necessary for the programs to continue.
Grant funding for another county court program could be at risk, too.
The county receives $90,000 in TAD funding for pretrial services, such as risk assessments for bail hearings. The funding is in trouble there in part because money is going toward services that aren’t exclusively focused on diverting those with substance abuse issues from the criminal justice system, Behl said.
Johnson said the services are “incredibly valuable” and would be “a shame to lose.”
The county is in its third year of a noncompetitive grant cycle and needs to apply around September to keep going. If in the future it has to apply for a competitive grant against counties who are at capacity, Behl said she was unsure how well Walworth County could do.
On July 31, the county will have training that features someone from a national treatment court organization. It also will work through policy challenges, Behl said.
If there’s a resolution at that meeting, Behl said, they would hopefully see more participants enter the program.
“So I think the plan is that on the July 31 meeting, we walk out of that meeting knowing if it’s continuing or not,” Behl said.
Charles “Chuck” Hohman
John A. Salzwedel
Donna M. Warnlof
Ronald E. Warren
One year ago, lawmakers moved quickly to pass a law that would close the state’s youth prison where a toxic environment led to dozens of injuries to inmates and staff—some nearly deadly.
In a time of deep division between Democrats and Republicans, not one lawmaker opposed the effort to shutter the Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls.
But now, just 15 months later and even as the same signs of danger linger, lawmakers and Gov. Tony Evers continue to push back the prison’s closure date and the funding to replace it.
“I just feel horrible about it,” said 19-year-old Elijah Jammerson, who spent five years in Lincoln Hills until 2018. “To be treated like animals and be caged—it’s just wrong. It just needs to stop.”
Offenders in the prison north of Wausau were held in isolation for weeks at a time. Pepper spray was used as punishment. And a girl from Janesville suffered permanent and severe brain damage after a guard there first took out the trash before responding to her call for help as she hanged herself.
Jammerson called it “the worst experience of my whole lifetime.”
“Going away from my family, miles and miles away—five hours away,” the Racine native said. “Then tortured by staff and kids—it was just a horrible scene for any teenager to be in.”
The staff has suffered, too. One guard narrowly missed being electrocuted by a group of inmates, and police were never told. A teacher was brutally assaulted by an inmate. Guards have been forced to work 16 hours in a row as staffing shortages plague the facility. Female workers received threats of rape.
At one point in 2015, the employee union drafted a press release calling the prison a “gladiator school” but worried about reprisal from state officials and never released it.
“Not only is management at the facility failing to prevent repeated episodes of violence between inmates, it also is ignoring clear legal requirements to report assaults to local authorities,” the workers wrote. “It’s time to break the silence before somebody gets killed.”
The conditions—festering for years—prompted a state and federal investigation and a number of lawsuits, including one class action federal challenge that forced major changes to the prison’s practices.
Even then it took until 2018 for former Gov. Scott Walker and lawmakers to seek changes—six years after the governor’s office was first notified of trouble at the facility.
But while the will is now there to close the prison and open smaller facilities across the state, the 2021 deadline to make it happen keeps getting pushed back as reality sets in for lawmakers and for the proposed new prisons’ neighbors.
“The costs ... we’re trying to figure out what that’s going to be,” Sen. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine, said. “But we’re also trying to figure out a location because people are not happy with the location—and we need to build two (state facilities).”
Lawmakers agreed to replace the Lincoln Hills prison with a group of county-run facilities and two state-run facilities for more serious offenders—one in Milwaukee and one in the town of Hortonia, in Outagamie County.
Neighboring property owners and town leaders told USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin in a story Thursday that the state never consulted them before deciding to place the facility in Hortonia.
“I don’t know if we can fight it or not, but we gotta put up a little fight,” said Nancy Willenkamp, a beef farmer and Hortonville Area School District bus driver who has lived in the town of 1,100 her entire life—73 years.
Willenkamp, a town supervisor, said she learned about the prison coming to the area through a radio broadcast. She’s most concerned about prison visitors committing crime in a town with just one constable.
“All the constable does is get called once in a while for a stray cat or dog,” she said. “There’s no crime or nothing here—so we’re all worried.”
Neither community selected for the new state-run facilities is happy about the idea of having a prison nearby, but in Hortonia the opposition includes prominent Republican lawmakers who have great influence in the Legislature, including the Senate President Roger Roth and Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke.
“We would advocate that the Administration justify their determination of the location of this facility,” Roth, Steineke and five other lawmakers wrote to the Legislature’s finance committee leaders in April asking them to delay approving funding to build the new state-run youth prisons.
The committee agreed and voted Tuesday to wipe out millions in funding proposed by Evers for the Hortonia and Milwaukee facilities and instead made it available to county governments to start work on their facilities.
Wanggaard said lawmakers likely wouldn’t know until September how much bonding authority to seek from taxpayers.
Wanggaard and other authors of the original bill to close the prison, including Reps. Evan Goyke and Michael Schraa, are seeking legislation to move the January 2021 closure date to July of that year.
And Evers has said it might be impossible to meet any deadline in 2021.
“We know what we need to do. We know there’s a need there. There wasn’t any debate or confusion—we just gotta act and do it. And we got to act and do it without delay,” Goyke said before the finance committee approved removing funding for the state facilities in the next state budget.
But juvenile corrections experts say the original bill was rushed and didn’t provide a realistic timeline or amount of money to avoid replicating the problems at the Lincoln Hills prison elsewhere—concerns aired when the law was moving through the Legislature.
“It was absolutely rushed from the beginning, so we’re buying more time to make sure the right things happen for young people,” Sharlen Moore, director of Youth Justice Milwaukee, said. “We don’t want to create one traumatic place for young people and just transplant it to another traumatic place.”
Kenneth Streit, a University of Wisconsin Law School professor who specializes in juvenile justice policies and has represented juvenile offenders, said the bill passed in 2018 “budgeted an unrealistically low number—but one that both parties could live with.”
“Closing a correctional facility needs bipartisanship. The crisis at Irma provided the critical moment that otherwise would never have come,” Streit said. “I think (Walker) didn’t want anything to do with it and wanted it to be ‘done’ so as to take it away as an election issue.”Streit said putting a 2021 deadline into the bill “kept it as a crisis act” and created momentum in the Legislature to avoid more involvement from federal officials in the state’s juvenile correctional system.
“If the deadline had gone later, many would have said ‘Was that really urgent?’ and that instead of taking the risk of developing new facilities, they should just invest in a more thorough overhaul of Irma,” he said.
Predicting how many offenders to prepare for also complicates lawmakers’ work. Streit said the average number of inmates at the Lincoln Hills prison was artificially low when lawmakers created the replacement plan.
“The terrible problems there had led many judges to do everything possible not to send a kid there because it was so dangerous and nasty,” Streit said. “If smaller, more locally accessible facilities with diverse and effective staffing was available, there’s every reason to believe that the cumulative average daily secure population would double or triple.”