Voting access in Milwaukee County jail in question

Activists express concerns, two sheriff candidates commit to increasing ballot access

By: - August 8, 2022 6:45 am
The Milwaukee County Courthouse. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

The Milwaukee County Courthouse. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

Ahead of Tuesday’s primary and the general election in November, voting access is a growing concern in Wisconsin, particularly as new policies restrict the use of absentee ballots and drop boxes.  Ballot access is also a concern in county jails, including in Milwaukee, the state’s largest city.

Linea Sundstrom, an organizer with the Milwaukee-based voter advocacy group Supermarket Legends, feels incarcerated people are among the most marginalized voters. “For many people who have never been in jail, having no access to your own property and no access to phone or internet and the normal U.S. mail process is an almost unimaginable concept,” Sundstrom told Wisconsin Examiner. “We don’t see the barriers because we’ve never experienced them.”

A Milwaukee County Sheriff vehicle parked below a bridge being crossed my protesters. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
A Milwaukee County Sheriff vehicle parked below a bridge. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

Many people don’t realize that residents of county jails are often in pre-trial detention. Not all have a history of felony convictions, or are facing new felony charges that render them ineligible to vote. “And there’s an idea that people who are in jail are not good people,” said Sundstrom. “But the reality is that people end up in jail for many reasons: A mental illness, inability to pay bills or fines, or just being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Most people think it can never happen to them, so they don’t develop empathy around it.”

Nevertheless, being incarcerated in a county jail doesn’t eliminate one’s right to vote. James Burnett, director of public affairs and community engagement at MCSO, told Wisconsin Examiner that 11-by-17-inch laminated posters detailing upcoming registration and voting deadlines for the August primary and November election were hung up in each housing unit. Burnett also provided a copy of the MCSO’s inmate voting policy.

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Sundstrom possessed a copy of the policy, though it was undated. She points out that while the policy says that residents are informed about voting during the booking process, this detail might be overlooked.

“At that moment, the person’s mind is on other things,” said Sundstrom. “And some residents come from families [or] circles where voting is just not on the map.” Issues may also arise when it comes time to inform residents that an election is coming up. “Many voters don’t hear or read much about the spring elections in particular, which is one factor in low turnout then. It’s even harder when you are behind bars. And some jail residents don’t know they are allowed to vote if they have no felony convictions.” Internet access, or a lack of an I.D., may also frustrate jail residents seeking to vote. What about registering to vote, which requires a proof of residence document? Jail residents may attempt to satisfy this by providing intake papers, which are government documents and not representative of the person’s actual address.

The poster which was hung in each housing unit to explain voting rights for jail residents. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
The poster which was hung in each housing unit to explain voting rights for jail residents. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

“So, let’s say the voter managed to get through all this and has the absentee ballot,” Sundstrom continued. “At [the House of Corrections], they can fill it out, get it properly witnessed, and mail it back to the correct clerk’s office. Success!” At facilities which photocopy all the mail, absentee ballots would not be the originals and thus, would be invalid. Wisconsin Examiner reached out to all three of the candidates for Milwaukee County sheriff on the ballot in the Aug. 9 primary. Denita Ball, who currently serves as the MCSO’s deputy chief, didn’t respond, but her opponents did.

Candidates Brian Barkow and Thomas Beal acknowledged that more needs to be done to increase voting access within the jail. Whereas Beal currently serves as a captain in the MCSO, Barkow serves as an inspector and commander of the office’s Investigative Services Bureau. “When it comes to voting access for people that are in custody,” Beal told Wisconsin Examiner, “currently there are policies and procedures in place in the jail. However, it seems that it’s very clear that they’re not being followed.”

Brian Barkow with his family. (Photo | Brian Barkow for Milwaukee County Sheriff)
Brian Barkow with his family. (Photo | Brian Barkow for Milwaukee County Sheriff)

Barkow expressed appreciation for specialty training being provided to correctional officers at the jail to ensure residents have absentee ballots. That access is crucial, since “the jail cannot legally be considered as a place of residence for in-person voting, so absentee voting is the only way that voting can be conducted there.” Barkow added, “With that said, we can always do more to bring the community in and expand volunteer access to the jail for the purpose of nonpartisan election outreach.”

Both Beal and Barkow stressed that many jail residents are in pre-trial detention and still have voting rights. Both candidates expressed a commitment to increase voting awareness within the facility. “I am committed to working with organizations like the League of Women Voters (and other community organizations) to ensure that comprehensive voting rights information is afforded to every eligible voter in the jail,” said Barkow, adding that he wishes to increase internet voting through the jail’s tablet program. Sundstrom also highlighted the work of the League of Women Voters both in Milwaukee and Chippewa counties.

Beal told Wisconsin Examiner, “Once you get labeled ‘inmate,’ I guess a lot of people believe that they lose a lot of their rights. But exactly what I said earlier in law enforcement, being the sheriff of Milwaukee County, I have to protect everybody’s rights. And that includes people who are in custody.”

Thomas Beal (Photo | Tom Beal for Milwaukee County Sheriff)
Thomas Beal (Photo | Tom Beal for Milwaukee County)

The three candidates are running to replace  Sheriff Earnell Lucas who is stepping down. Chronic staffing shortages for correctional officers, mental health workers and other positions have also plagued the jail. The jail’s voting policy, for instance, states that a correctional officer liaison should be appointed by the jail commander to assist jail residents who want to vote. As of early May, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported, of the jails 251 officer positions, 140 were filled. Jerome Dillard, statewide director for Ex-Incarcerated People Organizing (EXPO), told Wisconsin Examiner that the group has deep concerns about voter suppression, among other issues.

“We call on the new sheriff of Milwaukee County to provide a voting policy for the people in their care that allows access to the ballot and recognizes the voting rights of people being detained pre-trial, those not currently on supervision for a felony conviction, and anyone who is eligible to vote,” the group said in a statement. “We also ask that voter registration which has NOT been allowed in the county jail under the current administration be re-instituted as soon as possible.” Dillard stressed that “everyone who can vote should vote and we believe it is the responsibility of the Milwaukee County sheriff, jail administrator, and jail staff to facilitate that at all costs. Democracy needs everyone.”

Voting rights activists and others gathering at the Midtown Center in Milwaukee on the first day of early voting in July, 2022. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
Voting rights activists and others gathering at the Midtown Center in Milwaukee on the first day of early voting in July, 2022. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

Sundstrom concedes that it can be difficult to gauge the impact of voting behind bars on any given election. “There are about 13,000 people in jail in Wisconsin on any given day, half of whom have never been charged and convicted of anything. I don’t know what that translates to over the course of a year,” she says. “Data is hard to find.” Still, she notes that Black, brown, tribal, and low-income communities are disproportionately represented in jails. Issues that directly affect incarcerated people are debated by candidates and elected officials.  Wisconsin legislators have recently been pushing a referendum vote on whether the state constitution should be changed to create stricter bail laws.

“If one way to disempower these communities is to lock their members up, then one way to empower them is to let those locked-up people vote anyway,” says Sundstrom. “On a more abstract level, it’s my hope that a person who ‘discovers’ the power of the vote in jail will take that discovery with them when they return to their community. I always say that I’m not sure voting is the answer to a community’s challenges, but I’m sure that not voting is not the answer. It’s one little piece of empowering yourself to make things better.”


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Isiah Holmes
Isiah Holmes

Isiah Holmes is a journalist and videographer, and a lifelong resident of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His writing has been featured in Urban Milwaukee, Isthmus, Milwaukee Stories, Milwaukee Neighborhood News Services, Pontiac Tribune, the Progressive Magazine, Al Jazeera, and other outlets.