Questions Loom Over Recent Deaths at Milwaukee County Jail

Nov 21, 2016

Update, Dec. 1:

Milwaukee County Supervisor Supreme Moore Omokunde is calling for Sheriff David Clarke, Jr. to resign because of recent deaths at the county jail. The sheriff is responsible for jail operations. According to a statement Omokunde released Thursday, "Media reports and accounts of witnesses indicate that at least three of the deaths appear to have occurred as a result of actions or inaction by Sheriff Clarke's corrections officers. Yet not a single officer has been disciplined, and Sheriff Clarke remains silent. This is totally unacceptable."

Original story:

Four people have died in the Milwaukee County Jail since April. A baby was the latest, and late last week, the mother filed a claim for $8.5 million in damages. She says she went into labor while in custody but that staff ignored her pleas for help. Also last week, a court-ordered monitor released a report noting inadequate staffing at the jail. The problem of staffing is not a new one.

Back in the late 1990s a former inmate at the Milwaukee County Jail sued it, alleging overcrowding. The county settled by agreeing to cap the number of inmates at 960 – and provide adequate, well-trained medical staff. Now, 15 years later, the jail still isn’t compliant when it comes to health care staffing, according to Peter Koneanzy. He’s director of litigation for the Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee. It along with the ACLU of Wisconsin represented the plaintiffs.

“Typically it’s not the most desirable place for some people to want to work if they’re in the medical profession. So if there’s shortages in nursing, staffing generally, then it’s going to be seen more acutely in a correctional setting,” Koneanzy says.

A few years ago, the county decided to contract with a private company called Armor to ease the shortage. Koneanzy says in some ways, the jail is in better shape now than when Armor began providing inmates’ health, dental and mental care.

“One of the most critical issues when the Armor contract was being considered was that there were vacancies in all the key leadership positions in in the medical program. Medical director, medical administrator and chief psychiatrist. Those positions had all become vacant and it seemed to be impossible to find anyone qualified to come and work in the Milwaukee jail,” Koneanzy says.

Yet while Armor brought stabilization to the top, turnover and job vacancies elsewhere remain high. According to the report the court-appointed monitor just released, the jail has a 37 percent staff vacancy rate. Koneanzy says the goal is to get that down to what’s generally accepted across the country, 10 percent – 20 percent. Still he says, short staffed or not, the recent deaths in the Milwaukee jail are troublesome.

“How could the person who died in April of dehydration, who apparently had mental illness and was in a punishment area of the jail, which should have been monitored on a half hour, one hour rounds of checking on somebody and with medical observation at least once a day, went through a process of dehydration,” Koneanzy asks.

Koneanzy says ultimately, Sheriff David Clarke is responsible for everything that happens at the jail.

“There is a concern with the overall approach to how people are treated in the jail, having a level of respect and concern for inmates. That has to be a priority,” Koneanzy says.

Attorney Erik Heipt says the Milwaukee County Jail isn’t alone when it comes to being understaffed and undertrained, leaving inmates at risk of neglect. Heipt is representing the family of Terrill Thomas, the man who died of dehydration in jail.

“I’ve been doing this for a while and my law partner and I currently have eight jail death cases in five different states and we see this all the time. It’s disturbing,” Heipt says.

Heipt says that while he does plan to sue the county on behalf of the Thomas family, right now, he’s still investigating the circumstances. A spokesperson for Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele issued a statement saying the deaths are troubling, but the county executive has no authority over operations at the jail. She says the independently-elected Sheriff David Clarke is the person in control. Calls to the sheriff’s department were not returned.