Protesters occupy the Milwaukee County Jail’s main entrance in 2020. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
“When you get to a point where you can’t take no more, you go to the extreme to do what you got to do to literally draw attention,” says Sylvester Jackson, a Milwaukee-area activist who focuses on mass incarceration. Jackson was reflecting on recent charges against 27 people held within the Milwaukee County jail. Officials say the charges stem from a mid-August incident during which incarcerated people barricaded themselves in a library area and refused to return to their cells. A Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) press release states the men expressed “dissatisfaction with their gymnasium time coming to an end and expressing that, generally, they wanted more ‘open’ recreational time.”
Jackson, who has been incarcerated in jails and prisons in the past and now is the CEO and co-founder of The Believers For Change, says similar protests among incarcerated people against facility policies are more common than people realize. “All it takes is enough people to get fed up and realize they got to do something,” Jackson says.
Six people have died while in custody at the Milwaukee County jail over the last 14 months. Meanwhile, activists and elected officials have received a steady stream of reports about the deteriorating conditions in the jail. After the death of 21-year-old Brieon Green last summer, families of people who’ve died in the jail formed a coalition. The Milwaukee Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, a coalition member, has continuously called for transparency and reform at the jail.
Rep. Ryan Clancy (D-Milwaukee), who also sits on the County Board of Supervisors, told Wisconsin Examiner that he’s frequently in contact with people held in the jail. “They report that the horrific conditions are not improving and that some are getting worse, especially the 23-hour-a-day lock downs that are at the heart of this,” said Clancy. “The Sheriff’s Office refusal to change common- sense policies led them to engage, in this incident, in a large act of civil disobedience. But smaller actions – from clogging toilets to self-harm – have been happening for months.”
Like Clancy, Jackson has also heard a variety of “dreadful” grievances from people held in the jail, including complaints about poor quality food, restricted access to recreation, tissue and phones. Jackson says that women in the jail have also shared concerns with him regarding people with mental disability or competency issues being held alongside women without those issues or needs. These complaints echo observations made by the Department of Corrections (DOC), which conducts annual inspections of jails like Milwaukee’s. An inspector’s report from early November, obtained by Wisconsin Examiner through an open records request, highlighted several of the concerns brought to both Clancy and Jackson. A number of recommendations were made for the jail’s operations including:
- “Work to resume normal dayroom schedules. 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.”
- “Ensure staff are inspecting cells to maintain windows and lights are not covered. Numerous cells were observed with the back window covered which eliminated a clear view into the cell. An unobstructed view is needed to ensure safety and security.”
- “Population – Continue to work on managing high daily population numbers and subsequent housing constraints. The facility is currently working with the Milwaukee County House of Correction and the Racine County Jail to house inmates to reduce their daily population. It is clear based on the ADP reports that population remains a concern. Population levels should be reviewed to assess facility needs to develop long term planning.”
- “Classification – Review classification status to ensure individuals housed in the same cell have the same custody classification.”
A final bullet point again referencing staffing shortages was mostly redacted in the records release. The inspection also noted damaged, graffitied, or deteriorating sections of the facility such as the showers, ceilings and lights inside the cells, and window tinting needed for security reasons. The report also noted efforts made to improve some of these problems including hiring events, providing tablets to people held in general population, a replaced door control and intercom system, the implementation of a GED program, non-corded suicide prevention phones, streamlined booking procedures to prevent overcrowding, and a medication-assisted treatment program for people suffering from addiction.
The jail has worked with the Milwaukee Police Department, “on a process where bails can be paid while occupants are waiting for transfer to the Milwaukee County Jail,” the report noted. “This has assisted in reducing bookings and overcrowding at both facilities (Jail and MPD lockup.)
“We the public never hear the real truth,” said Jackson. “Every now and then, somebody gets brave enough to send home to their family what really happened, and then they try to cover it up. So, it doesn’t take much other than enough people getting fed up with being treated like dogs, inhumane, you know? Not being fed, not being allowed to shower, not being allowed to get out of your room and work out, get to use the phone, stuff like that. And then when it gets to the point where people feel like they got to do something, the best thing we know as people that’s been incarcerated is connect with each other and the more you stand up, the more attention you’re going to get. And hopefully that attention draws the outside.”
In Jackson’s eyes, the 27 men who are now facing charges of disorderly conduct, obstructing an officer, and party to a crime “succeeded in that.” While the disorderly conduct charges only carry penalties of 90 days imprisonment and a $1,000 fine, those involving obstructing an officer are more severe. For those charges, the penalties can amount to nine months imprisonment, and a $10,000 fine.
They knew that they were going to get retribution behind it, but when things get that extreme, you’re willing to accept what’s behind it
– Sylvester Jackson, co-founder and CEO of The Believers For Change
During his own experiences being incarcerated, Jackson faced retaliation for making complaints about facility conditions and treatment from staff. The use of force, neglect and solitary confinement – which cuts the individual off from both the rest of the jail and the outside world – are all familiar tactics to Jackson. For people held in jails and prisons, overcoming such situations often requires sacrifice. “They knew that they were going to get retribution behind it, but when things get that extreme, you’re willing to accept what’s behind it,” said Jackson. “Your point is just to get the attention of the public. To draw a light on what’s really going on with the conditions.” Jackson added, “you’re sacrificing for the change.”
The criminal complaint against the 27 men in the Milwaukee jail states that the men barricaded themselves inside a library area and put paper over the windows to prevent MCSO staff from seeing inside. Officials decided to lock down the jail and activate the specialized Correctional Emergency Response Team (CERT). At this point, 34 incarcerated people who were not inside the library were relocated to another part of the jail. Negotiations between the staff and the men were unsuccessful, with the complaint stating, “the barricaded inmates refused all commands, refused to open the door, refused to uncover the windows, and threatened jail staff. None of the barricading inmates exited the library in compliance with the orders and negotiations, including after orders from correctional officers and sheriff’s deputies.”
As events played out, a sprinkler system was damaged and caused the room to flood with water. The criminal complaint states “unknown inmate or inmates” caused the damage, although the complaint wasn’t more specific.
After Director Joshua Briggs ordered the men to be removed a deputy punched a hole in the library window and dispensed OC spray, or pepper spray, into the library. The men were secured, and deputies observed that inside the room a table had been pushed against the door. All of the barricaded men were wearing face coverings. One incarcerated man was beaten with a baton after turning towards a deputy with a closed fist, the complaint states. A detective, using video and booking photos, identified the 27 men.
For Clancy, “one of the most disturbing parts of this story is that the MCSO refused to release any details for weeks.”
“The media, the public, the families of the people pepper sprayed and beaten, and even the folks on the Judiciary Committee tasked with oversight weren’t told anything until after the charging document was released,” Clancy said. A spokesperson for MCSO said that the case is still ongoing and active. “I have not gotten any additional details from the sheriff,” said Clancy, who added he emailed her on Sept. 1 and was informed she was on vacation until Sept. 11.
“The sheriff’s office reminds us frequently that they have the autonomy to set their own policy, so they could make many immediate and substantial changes to policy which would alleviate the concerns that are causing unrest and deaths in custody,” Clancy said.
Jackson feels its a fight is being waged outside the jail as well.
“At the end of the day, if you’ve ever been in the County, you know for a fact that they do not run it according to what they tell the public.” Jackson says. “They don’t want to be held responsible for the conditions that they’re perpetrating.”
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