Is under-staffing really what’s wrong with Milwaukee’s County Jail?

Critics feel staffing levels are not enough to explain rash of deaths

By: - September 21, 2023 5:30 am
A Milwaukee County Sheriff vehicle parked below a bridge being crossed my protesters. (Photo by Isiah Holmes)

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

As questions have grown over conditions in the Milwaukee County Jail – where six people have died over the past 14 months – citizens have demanded an explanation for the continued deaths even as city and county leaders, including the county executive, mayor and sheriff have changed. The Milwaukee County Sheriff has blamed  staffing shortages and lack of funding for the deaths. But critics point out that other facilities with staffing shortages aren’t seeing similar problems.

One of the facilities with an improved record is Milwaukee County’s Community Reintegration Center (CRC). The facility, which was formerly known as the House of Corrections, has moved in a new direction in the last few years. By establishing new programs for its residents, and avoiding overcrowding, the CRC aims to reduce recidivism, instead of fueling it. An inspection of the CRC conducted by the Department of Corrections (DOC) in 2022 noted several new programs, hiring of additional staff and other operational changes which have  fostered a more positive environment within the facility. Some of those steps included:

  • Partnering With Marquette University to provide course options for qualified residents.
  • Providing financial literacy classes to residents through a partnership with Chase Bank.
  • A $3.00 raise for security staff
  • The development of a peer support program for staff
  • Implementation of a methadone and medication-assisted treatment program for residents struggling with substance use issues or withdrawal.
  • Implementation of a COVID-19 vaccine incentive program
  • Reduction of quarantine time for residents to assist with accepting transfers from the Milwaukee County jail.
  • Allowing residents to exercise within the housing units for one hour when recreation isn’t available.
  • Increasing the food budget to improve overall quality and variety of food for residents.
  • Development of a partnership with the Milwaukee Bucks for employment opportunities for residents.
  • Using American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds to implement trade programs by partnering with the Milwaukee Area Technical College.

The hiring of additional captains, mental health staff, resident complaint review staff, social workers  and family visitation managers was also highlighted in the inspection report. Meanwhile, the CRC has managed to avoid repeating a trend of deaths which previously beset  the jail.

After 21-year-old Brieon Green was found dead in his cell during the summer of 2021, his family joined local activists in pushing for transparency from the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO). Months later, the family described seeing video of a guard walking past Green’s cell as Green was taking his own life. Over the next 14 months, five more people held in the jail died either of alleged suicides or because of medical issues. Members of their families have joined a growing coalition of activists, grieving loved ones, and frustrated elected officials demanding that something change inside the jail’s concrete walls.

Sup. Ryan Clancy, one of the MCSO’s most vocal critics among Milwaukee’s elected officials, sees a stark contrast between the CRC and the jail. “The CRC is under the more direct control of the Board,” Clancy told Wisconsin Examiner. “It’s not perfect, but has led the way on resuming visitation and family visits, robust programming and other initiatives. It’s also extremely transparent. I can walk in there, eat meals with the people in our care, see where they sleep and work, and have candid conversations with them about what they need to more successfully rejoin society. The jail, on the other hand, is just the opposite.”

Clancy, a county supervisor who is also a sitting member of the Wisconsin  Assembly, has battled to gain access to the jail. Some of his requests to tour the jail have been ignored, denied or delayed. When a tour finally was granted, Clancy says he wasn’t shown cells or the living conditions for the people held there, and was shadowed by deputies or correctional officers.

“Every time we propose a change which the data says will make conditions better both for the people in our care and the CO’s, and which will aid re-entry and reduce crimes in the future, the sheriff’s office opposes it,” Clancy says. “They’ve blocked, or tried to block, free calls, free video calls, resuming visitation, payments for labor, the breaking up of Aramark’s food monopoly, and any suggestion that they advocate for solutions that incarcerate fewer people to begin with, or that they spend fewer hours on drone programs and PR when they claim they are doing so many lockdowns because they need staff in the jail.”

Many of those frustrations set the tone for a meeting of the county board’s Committee on Judiciary, Law Enforcement and General Services held on Sept. 11. Sheriff Denita Ball said that her office’s goal is to “challenge false narratives and defend the collective reputation of the hardworking men and women who represent and make up the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office, specifically those who staff the Milwaukee County Jail.”

While Ball said no government institution is above reproach or criticism, she said, “Too often in recent years criticism of this agency by certain individuals with public platforms have been framed in half-truths, confusions, and sometimes outright lies.” Ball added that  the jail joined other Milwaukee County institutions, including the CRC, in purchasing  a subscription to the public safety management company Lexipol to review and overhaul its policies. “I have heard criticisms of food quality and monopolistic service for our occupants,” said Ball, “criticisms that fault the sheriff’s office when the critics know full well that we do not determine, or fund, food-related contracts. Ironically, this board does.”

Ball also deflected responsibility for the  lack of free video calling, restrictions on visitation, and other reported problems back to the county board. The sheriff said that if the board wants any of those changes and more, then the board would need to fund those initiatives. Ball said she’d heard “the lie” that some jail residents are restricted to their cells for up to 23 hours a day, then went on to point out, “state statute requires no more than one hour of out-of-cell time per day.” Ball said her staff allow residents out of their cells for six to seven hours a day, every day, “with rare exceptions.”

The sheriff said her office has even been criticized for being short staffed, when this is a nationwide problem for correctional facilities. Clancy, along with  many local residents who waited hours for the public comment portion of the meeting, raised the same point from a different perspective. Whereas some felt that the staffing shortages exist because of a perception that working in corrections is unattractive for workers, others questioned why other facilities also dealing with under-staffing don’t struggle with rashes of deaths among occupants. Why hasn’t the CRC – another Milwaukee County facility – or even more secure prisons managed statewide by the DOC faced similar trends?

Kevin Hoffman, a spokesperson for the DOC, said that since July 2022 there have been 70 deaths of people in the department’s care across its 36 adult facilities. Of those, 31 were “anticipated” deaths where the individual was in the terminal stages of an illness and was expected to not live beyond a year. Another 39 deaths were “unanticipated,” four of which were suicides. According to data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics which Hoffman provided, the Badger State ranks among the lowest for prison deaths nationwide. In 2019, the state saw 1.84 deaths per 1,000 people within its prisons, compared to a rate of 2.92 nationally. Data from 2019 was given rather than 2020, due the COVID-19 pandemic, which skews the numbers, Hoffman explained.

Like the Milwaukee County Jail, many DOC facilities struggle with chronic overcrowding and under-staffing. Those issues were highlighted as the biggest issues facing the jail in a report the MCSO prepared for the Sept. 11 committee meeting. Specifically, the report noted, “the three most significant challenges that MCSO is facing are staffing at the [county jail], the inability of the medical and mental health service provider, Wellpath LLC, to fully staff the MCJ, and over-population at the MCJ.”

Pay increases for correctional staff were mentioned both in the report, and during the committee meeting. Correctional officers make about $26.43-$29.68 in Milwaukee, compared to $29.55-$34.10 in Racine, and $27.00-$30.68 in Kenosha. For the DOC, the range varies from $23 per hour to $33 per hour, according to the report prepared by the MCSO. “To remain competitive with the Wisconsin Department of Corrections and neighboring county jails, we have proposed a $6.06 per hour increase along with the anticipated 2% annual pay adjustment in April 2024. That will bring MCSO’s Correctional Officers pay to $33 per hour, making us a competitive and desirable place of employment.” The report makes a series of funding requests for a third-party staffing study, pay increases for correctional officers and calls for more investigation into Wellpath’s staffing challenges and other issues affecting services in the jail.

Wellpath is a health care contractor for correctional facilities. It replaced Armor Correctional Health Services in the jail back in 2019. Armor had fallen out of favor after the death of 38-year-old Terrill Thomas in April of 2016. Thomas died of dehydration after correctional officers placed the man in solitary confinement and shut off water to his cell. Armor staff were found to have falsified Thomas’ medical records to include checks on him which were absent on video. For mothers like Kerrie Hirte, there isn’t much difference between Wellpath and Armor. Her daughter, 20-year-old Cilivea Thyrion, was one of those who lost their lives within the jail over the last 14 months. Thyrion, who struggled with mental illness, died in December. The district attorney’s office declined to charge any correctional staff in Thyrion’s death.

Hirte said during the Sept. 11 committee meeting that her daughter died while on suicide watch. “This whole thing has been very hard to take in, coming to these meetings and hearing everything that’s going on when I lost my only child in this facility when I feel that it could have been prevented,” said Hirte, choking back tears. “I feel that she could have been better taken care of. I feel that things could have resulted where she could still be here today. And every time I come back here, I’m reminded of the fact that I’m not going to go home with my kid once and again. Only to go home every day and wish that my family was there.

Thyrion “would often talk about how her medications were mismanaged. How she was thrown in solitude for not even doing anything wrong, because some of the officers didn’t like what she did. Made fun of.”

Wiping away tears, as Sheriff Ball looked on, , Hirte recounted the last conversation she had with her daughter. “The day Cilivea died I talked to her, but then I never found out that she was actually gone until a phone call I received from a Waukesha detective at 7:00 at night. And it was already all over the media, in Milwaukee.”

Stories like those from the families of Thyrion, Green, and others,  Clancy says, make it hard for him to support giving more money to the MCSO. Funding increases for the agency have already been approved in the past, yet troubling reports from inside the jail haven’t ceased. In August, residents within the jail barricaded themselves in a library area in protest of conditions they’d endured. MCSO eventually entered the library and detained the participants, resulting in 27 men being charged. Local activists felt the unrest only further underscored the chronic problems within the jail which wouldn’t be fixed by more funding increases for the sheriff’s office.

Clancy is also troubled by what he feels is an opaque quality to the MCSO’s budget. “Even members of the press and Judiciary Committee are only allowed to see sterile, scrubbed cells, with a ton of advance notice,” Clancy told Wisconsin Examiner. “I’ve attempted for years to get even a small part of the access that we have routinely to the CRC to no avail. We can’t do real oversight if we can’t stop in and see the actual conditions instead of a dog and pony show put on by a phalanx of staff.” When comparing the CRC and the jail, for instance, Clancy finds the contrast night and day. “From the lack of discontent to the lack of a body count, the gap between the CRC and jail is huge,” said Clancy. “And it suggests that it’s possible to run a facility better through better policy and more transparency.”

Since the Sept. 11 committee meeting, Clancy has come under fire by outgoing Democratic county board member Anthony Staskunas. After announcing he won’t seek re-election earlier this month, Staskunas called on County Board Chairwoman Marcilla Nicholson to strip Clancy of his seat as chairman of the Judiciary, Law Enforcement, and General Services Committee. Staskunas said in a statement to Nicholson that he’d drafted the comments when Clancy made critical statements about law enforcement.

Staskunas said, “I find it highly inappropriate that a person with these opinions would be made the chairman of the JLEGS.” In response, the Milwaukee Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression issued a statement defending Clancy as “a fierce advocate for demands raised by community members and organizers who have been demanding robust change within the Milwaukee County Jail and policy creation to generate greater transparency and accountability from the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office.” The Alliance criticized  Staskuna’s comments as “attacks on the demands of the people of Milwaukee County who need transparency and accountability from the MCSO.”

“Ultimately,” Clancy told Wisconsin Examiner, “if the MCSO is unwilling to improve conditions even with all of these tools at their disposal, I think the solution may be to change state law to allow counties to run their jails directly. The perpetual failures of several successive sheriffs to show progress seems to point to the need for a systemic solution.”


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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.