At Milwaukee County Reintegration Center new vision collides with mass incarceration

County officials hope to turn the facility into more than just a prison as overpopulation plagues jail

By: - May 17, 2023 5:30 am
Prison guard

Prison guard (photo by Getty Images, ImageSource) Image Source royalty free

Milwaukee County has big plans for its Community Reintegration Center (CRC), an incarceration facility formerly known as the House of Corrections. By creating a diversified network of programs and services and avoiding overcrowding, officials hope to repurpose the facility to better reintegrate its residents back into the community. It’s an ambitious goal, though one which could potentially conflict with Republican-backed tough-on-crime policies that  would ultimately mean higher rates of  incarceration for Milwaukee County residents.

In April, Wisconsin voters approved  a GOP ballot measure that  creates stricter  bail policies through an amendment to the state Constitution. The amendment allows judges to consider “the totality of the circumstances” when setting cash bail for people accused of violent crimes. Republican-controlled Legislature also set new legal definitions for violent crimes. While supporters of the amendment saw it as a way to prevent violent criminals from being released into the community, opponents said it would massively increase the number of people held in jails awaiting trial who hadn’t been convicted of any crime.

A protesters sign during a rally outside Green Bay's prison. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
A protesters sign made by prison abolition activists. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

The bail proposal passed with the  approval of 68% of eligible Wisconsin voters who cast ballots in April. The measure allowing the Legislature to redefine violent crime was approved by 67% of voters. Many of the people directly affected  by the change — currently and formerly incarcerated people with felony records — were unable to legally vote for or against the proposals.

On any given day, the Milwaukee County Jail is on the brink of exceeding its population capacity. According to a Department of Corrections inspection report on the jail from 2022, the jail has a maximum capacity of 972 people. At the time of the inspection, there were 961 people being held in the facility. By comparison, according to DOC inspection reports, that same year the CRC—with a total population capacity of 1,766—held 706 people. Overflow from the Milwaukee County Jail spills into surrounding facilities.  The Racine County Jail has agreed to hold up to 80 people at a time from Milwaukee County.

How might a scramble for extra space affect the future of the CRC? David Rugaber, assistant superintendent at the CRC, told Wisconsin Examiner that a sharp population rise in the CRC could throw off the balance of programming and staffing the center is attempting to maintain.

“Any significant rise in our resident population would require opening additional housing units which would necessitate additional staff, most likely on overtime,” Rugabar explained. “Mandatory overtime is a main contributor to our turnover rate. The fiscal cost of opening one housing unit is approximately $1,126,974. There is a possibility that to accommodate said rise, staff would need to be diverted from our programming area into those recently opened housing units.” Rugabar stressed that the county remains committed to reducing recidivism adding that, ‘the constitutional amendment would not change that vision.”

Hands grasping bars in jail or prison
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For years, officials at the facility have operated on the theory that incarceration alone isn’t the answer to improving public safety. Rugabar references the words of Chantell Jewell, the first Black woman ever to lead the Community Reintegration Center in Milwaukee County as superintendent. “Incarceration is only one part of the response to community safety,” Jewel has said. “We also have to ensure that we have resources to help rehabilitate residents. Our goal is to create safer communities and create less victims.”

Jewell adds, “Research tells us that merely incarcerating someone without the added treatment is of no benefit. Because all you’re doing is removing someone for a period of time when we have to be able to help address whatever is driving those behaviors.”

A variety of rehabilitative programming

Since 2022, the CRC has instituted programs aimed at addressing the needs of residents and the root causes of the crimes for which  they were incarcerated. The programs have been designed and decided upon through a racial equity lens. Last June, a housing navigator was hired to assist residents with housing referrals upon their release. In 2022, Rugabar told Wisconsin Examiner, “she worked with 171 individuals and helped them secure critical documents such as birth certificates, IDs, and Social Security cards. She also secured Section 8 Housing for two residents, one receiving housing benefits of $999 monthly. She assisted a resident in securing $7,155 from Community Advocates, and had a landlord dismiss the eviction.”

Since August, Wisconsin Community Service (WCS) has provided on-site case management at the center, focusing on residents who have been there for 90 days or more. Rugabar told Wisconsin Examiner that 75 residents were assessed, which then led to referrals to services such as housing, access to physical and mental health treatment, educational opportunities, and access to financial wellness information. In October, a human services worker was hired to assist WCS.

The Milwaukee County Courthouse. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
The Milwaukee County Courthouse. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

Last year, the CRC also partnered with the city of Milwaukee to start the Driver’s License Recovery Program. That year, Judge Derek Mosley conferred with 66 residents virtually and assisted them with municipal tickets or suspended licenses, Rugabar said. “The CRC understands that often the lack of driver’s license is a barrier to employment opportunities, especially for minorities, therefore it is important to us for them to have an opportunity to get their driver’s license current and assist with bridging that gap to employment.”

The center also partnered with Chase Bank to provide courses for residents on budgeting, saving, credit and homeownership. In Milwaukee County, income inequity between Black and white residents is stark, with a   median income for Black residents of $25,600 compared with $62,600 for white residents. Unemployment rates for Black Milwaukee residents is among the worst in the nation.

At CRC, employment specialists assisted 30 residents gain full-time outside employment through  a partnership with Employ Milwaukee in 2022. Another 28 residents graduated from “Making it Work/Thinking for a Change,” an integrated cognitive behavioral change  program for people who have been incarcerated taught by on-site specialists.

“Connecting residents with self-sustaining employment opportunities has been extremely important in CRC’s mission in investing in root causes of health disparities,” said Rugabar.

The Milwaukee County Courthouse. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
The Milwaukee County Courthouse. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

The CRC has also begun offering medication-assisted treatment for residents struggling with opioid addiction. Some 160 residents were treated or served in this program last year. A three-year grant was also awarded to the CRC from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, which will focus on strengthening relationships between children and incarcerated parents to promote healthy family dynamics. A partnership with the Benedict Center, a Milwaukee-based interfaith nonprofit, focuses on incarcerated women, 175 of whom were served by the center’s reentry program with courses dealing with trauma, narcan and opioid education, life skills, nurturing parenting and other topics. Various other programs include  voter education, job preparation through the Waukesha County Technical College and a partnership with the Milwaukee Bucks basketball team that works  to funnel people into employment opportunities at the Bucks’ home stadium, Milwaukee’s Fiserv Forum.

The DOC’s 2022 inspection report on the facility noted several recent changes. Security staff got a $3.00 raise. A peer support program for staff was developed. New privacy barriers were installed in the bathrooms. And  residents were allowed to exercise for an hour within the housing units. A family visitation security officer and related programs were started, as well as a family visiting  center. A new residential support team for residents experiencing mental health crises  was created as well. Security cameras were augmented in the facility, among other changes.

Stark contrast between Milwaukee jail and Reintegration Center

Meanwhile, conditions seem to have  deteriorated  day by day at the Milwaukee County jail. County officials and the public are calling for  an audit of the jail after a string of in-custody deaths. Four deaths have occurred in the Milwaukee County jail in less than a year.

Recently, a correctional officer was charged for falsifying a record after failing to perform as safety check on Octaviano Juarez-Corro, one of three people who allegedly committed suicide in the jail. Last June, 21-year-old Brieon Green was found dead in his cell shortly after arriving at the jail. His family members and their lawyers say that he died of a preventable suicide, and that a guard walked past his cell as Green was in the act of taking his own life. Cilivea Thyrion, 20, also died, reportedly by suicide, in the jail.

Protesters gather at the Milwaukee County Courthouse to call for transparency in the death of Breon Green. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
Protesters gather at the Milwaukee County Courthouse to call for transparency in the death of Breon Green. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

A DOC inspection of the jail in November 2022 noted that “low staffing levels have resulted in increased amount of time subjects are secured within their cells. This presents concerns for their mental health, as well as various challenges for the staff and facility operations.” It further recommended that it be ensured that staff inspect cells to make sure windows and lights are not covered, which obstructs a clear view into the cell. “An unobstructed view is needed to ensure safety and security,” the inspection report stated. Overpopulation is another key concern at the jail, which partnered with Racine County and the CRC to reduce the pressure.

The jail has made certain operational changes to address the problems noted in the inspection. Jail administrators have  worked collaboratively with the Milwaukee Police Department on a process through which  bails are paid while occupants are waiting for transfers to the jail. The facility has also implemented a new booking process for those who are ordered by the court to be booked and then released from the jail solely for the purpose of booking and fingerprinting.

Protesters gather at the Milwaukee County Courthouse to call for transparency in the death of Breon Green. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
Protesters gather at the Milwaukee County Courthouse to call for transparency in the death of Breon Green. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

“These individuals are no longer brought into the facility through the conventional booking process,” the inspection report states. “This new process has successfully reduced jail population and assisted with minimizing overcrowding in the booking area.”

In March, supervisors Felesia Martin and Ryan Clancy introduced a resolution to investigate the jail’s policies surrounding suicide prevention and monitoring, reporting incidents to families, the use of solitary confinement and other issues. The resolution gained the support of three other supervisors and, while not technically an audit, would necessitate the gathering a large amount of information from the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office.

Correction: This article has been edit to reflect that the Milwaukee County Sheriffs Office does not oversee the Community Reintegration Center, which is overseen by Superintendent Chantell Jewell.


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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.