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NIC Report: Wisconsin Jails Racist and Dangerous

On January 31, 2008, the National Institute of Corrections (NIC) issued a 139-page report detailing numerous flaws in the Milwaukee, Wisconsin jail system. The Milwaukee House of Correction (HOC), the Community Corrections Center (CCC) and the County Jail Facility (CJF) fell short in virtually every area scrutinized by inspectors. From fire hazards and filth to dysfunctional guards and the jail’s K9 unit, the HOC failed in every area but one.

Dr. Jeffrey A. Schwartz spent eight days touring the HOC in two separate visits, both in September 2007. Dr. Schwartz’s initial assessment was that the facility was overcrowded and in danger of many impending problems as a result.

The Milwaukee County jail system holds a total of around 3,440 prisoners. This includes 2,207 at the HOC, up to 280 in the CCC and up to 960 in the CJF.

For its size, the HOC operates an unusually large K9 unit. The jail has 14 dogs and handlers, even though dogs are seldom used in county facilities. Assistant Superintendent Jeffrey Mayer admitted that the K9s served a two-fold purpose of sniffing out drugs and intimidating prisoners. Inspectors concluded that two dogs would be just as effective as the fourteen that were being used.

Not only were the dogs unnecessarily expensive, in some cases they actually impeded the ability of staff to respond to emergencies. Only once in the past decade had dogs been used to subdue an unruly prisoner.

The NIC report observed that the K9s might be better used to sniff out drugs on guards, since guards were the most frequent source of drugs entering the facility.

But the most disturbing aspect of the dogs’ presence was the ideology behind their use. The report noted the inordinate number of black prisoners incarcerated at the HOC and the fact that the dogs were specifically used to intimidate them. The use of German Shepherds “evokes memories of Bull Connor and Civil Rights marches in the South,” and creates a “negative racial stereotype.” This conclusion was based in part on the fact that while the general population of Milwaukee County is only one-fourth black, the county jail population is three-fourths black.

The CCC raised different concerns for NIC inspectors. The report noted the absence of any type of fire sprinklers or evacuation plan at the facility. The CCC holds hundreds of work release prisoners. “No one the consultant spoke with ... ever remembered a fire drill being conducted there.” Given the fact that the five-story building is an antiquated wood-frame construction, “there is every reason to believe that a fire could spread through the building very fast.”

The report also described conditions inside the CCC as roach-infested with mold, sewage and generally poor sanitation.

County Executive Scott Walker has recommended that the CCC be demolished and the work release prisoners placed on GPS monitoring. Sheriff David A. Clarke, Jr. has resisted the idea, arguing that ankle monitors would not provide sufficient security. His criticism is countered by the fact that most of the CCC prisoners work unsupervised in the community during the day and return to the jail only at night.

Fire safety, the K9 unit and race relations were only the most glaring problems cited in the NIC report. A myriad of lesser but equally serious concerns warranted immediate attention. For example, the CCC provides no medical services; rather, each prisoner in need of medical care is taken to a nearby hospital, where they are expected to cover the cost of their own treatment.

The HOC has only an eight-bed infirmary and the jail system lacks a medical administrator. Prisoners do not keep their own medication; instead, guards pass out pills twice a day with no formal protocol or specific procedure or oversight.

Further, the HOC does not have a Correctional Emergency Response Team (CERT), and no plan for dealing with “emergency preparedness and disaster planning. The only disaster plan used by CCC is a twenty-five page document, half of which deals with fire emergencies and half to general emergencies.”

The report also described a seriously flawed grievance system. Specifically, “It is not a system and it does not work. It might be that HOC would be better off with no grievance system whatsoever than what is currently in place because the current situation is more effective at creating cynicism and bitterness than at redressing wrongs.”

The current system sends a prisoner’s grievance to the person or department that is complained about. The recipient of the grievance can respond or not respond as they choose. Thus, under the existing system, the “vast majority of grievances are either denied or go unanswered.” The NIC report observed that a well-run grievance program is a way to avoid problems before they become major incidents. When a substantial number of prisoners grieve a single issue (i.e. food), it is an indicator that a problem exists that could eventually result in a serious disturbance.

The report used the term “prima donna behavior” to describe a culture of dysfunction at the HOC. Many guards had found that the best method to get their own way from managers and administrators was to complain or create problems. Guards often “go off” on each other and allow personal problems to interfere with their job. Aberrant behavior by employees also involves a great deal of “infighting,” the report noted.

Most often supervisors allow such behavior to go unchecked. Guards were also observed participating in gambling pools on the job. These problems were exacerbated by the fact that Milwaukee County has no nepotism policy, which allows family problems to find their way more easily into the workplace.

The HOC policy manual is so badly outdated that much of its contents has no relevance to day-to-day operations and is for the most part ignored. The policy covering use of force is three-and-a-half pages long and was last revised thirteen years ago.

Security was generally lax, and security lapses contributed to an August 3, 2007 escape. The escapee reportedly spent three weeks making considerable noise while breaking through a screen in a supply closet. Staff not only ignored the noise, they also ignored repeated warnings from other prisoners that someone was trying to break out.

“The House of Correction is a seriously troubled institution,” the report concluded. HOC Superintendent Ron Malone was given 90 days to clean up the mess; he said he was looking forward to the challenge.

Beyond the problems cited in the NIC report, another challenge involves a recent court ruling that found the Milwaukee jail system in contempt for violation of a previous consent decree related to intake procedures and overcrowding. [See: PLN, Oct. 2008, p.38].

One potential solution for some of the issues mentioned in the report – placing the operation of the HOC under the jurisdiction of the Sheriff’s office – has run into difficulty. According to an Oct. 14, 2008 article in the Journal Sentinel, “bad blood” between Sheriff Clarke and members of the Milwaukee County Board was one reason that a proposed merger between the HOC and the Sheriff’s office has bogged down. The Board reportedly criticized the Sheriff for not providing them with sufficient details about the merger, while Clarke accused the Board of “meddling.”

Sources: National institute of Corrections Technical Assistance Project Final Report,,

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