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The Milwaukee County Jail: A look at the deaths, questionable conditions, protests

Sign for the Milwaukee County Jail
Chuck Quirmbach
The Milwaukee County Jail, located at 949 N. 9th Street in downtown Milwaukee.

* A note to our listeners, this conversations includes mentions of suicide, self-harm and abuse.*

The Milwaukee County Jail and the Milwaukee County Sheriff's Office, which runs the jail, is being scrutinized again for substandard conditions. Six people held in custody at the Milwaukee County Jail have died in just over a year, and people housed at the Milwaukee County Jail have reported a lack of health care, recreation, poor food and long booking times.

In August, 27 people at the jail protested these conditions by locking themselves in the jail’s library. The inmates were charged with obstructing an officer and disorderly conduct following the incident.

Vanessa Swales, a reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, has been reporting on what's been going on inside the jail. She says the public wasn't made aware of the protest until after the men involved were charged. She also notes that the sheriff's office only noted injuries to the staff and not any of the men who took part in the protest.

"So I've had conversations with individuals who are housed at the jail, who wish to remain anonymous purely out of fear of retaliation. But some of the things that they described to me [were] that a number of the 27 men who were part of this barricade did sustain injuries; including a man who was hit by the baton allegedly lost a tooth. One man has a bloodshot eye, a lot of them have bruises. One is suffering from an injured arm and shoulder and there is one gentleman who has a colostomy bag and said he was experiencing stomach issues following this incident," describes Swales.

Swales says that the protest did not come out of nowhere. People incarcerated at the jail have been calling attention to issues such as long booking times, substandard food, lack of time outside of cells and overpopulation, all while people in custody have died at a rate of one person every 77 days since June 2022. Even correctional officers working at the jail share similar concerns about what is happening.

"It's really become this location, this place, where everybody, including the jail staff are unsatisfied and unhappy with what is happening," Swales says.

Lake Effect's Sam Woods & Joy Powers explore conditions at the Milwaukee County Jail after several deaths there and Waupun Correctional Institute, which has been on lockdown for months.

Milwaukee County Sheriff Denita Ball has blamed staffing shortages for ongoing issues at the Milwaukee County Jail. She said that issues at the jail are likely to continue without incentives to attract and retain correctional officers at the jail, such as pay raises. It's up to the County Board of Supervisors to fund those pay raises.

"Our correctional officers can earn more money working elsewhere," she said while testifying at the County Board's Committee on Judiciary, Law Enforcement and General Services on in September. "This Board, not the Sheriff's Office, determines how much money our officers make."

This is not the first time people incarcerated at the jail have protested conditions there related to medical and mental health care or recreation time. These complaints date back decades. In 2001, a consent decree was reached following a lawsuit against Milwaukee County, citing overcrowding at the jail, leading to substandard conditions. The Consent Decree limited the number of inmates at the jail to 960, limited the time people could spend in booking before being assigned to a bed to 30 hours, and instituted court monitoring of health care at the jail that continues today.

For nearly three full years between then and April 2004, the county was found in contempt of court for continuing to force people in the jail to sleep next to urinals, and in some cases, up to 21 people sharing one cell while also not providing access to showers, hygiene products or a change of clothes. The Circuit Court found Milwaukee County violated the consent decree 16,662 times during this span and Milwaukee County never paid damages to inmates harmed by these practices due to reasons of legal procedure.

Alan Chavoya and Omar Flores are members of the Milwaukee Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression. They do not believe that the issues with the jail system is reflective of the funding issue that the Sheriff's office cites. "The truth is that their budget has been going up and up and up for the last several years...to me, that sounds like they're holding the county hostage," says Chavoya. Flores adds, "it's just, it's nauseating to think that they view almost people's lives as like a bargaining chip and not much more than that."

Have a loved one being held at a correctional facility in Wisconsin? Were you or someone you know incarcerated? If you'd like to share your experience: comment below, email lakeeffect@uwm.edu or call us at 414-251-8970.


Sam is a WUWM producer for Lake Effect.
Robert is All Things Considered Host and Digital Producer.
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