Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Monetary Sanctions Permitted for Milwaukee Jail’s Violation of Consent Decree

Monetary Sanctions Permitted for Milwaukee Jail’s Violation of Consent Decree

by David Reutter

Wisconsin’s First District Court of Appeals has held that an intentional contempt finding against the Milwaukee County Jail (MCJ) entitles prisoners who were injured by the contemptuous conduct to recover monetary sanctions.

In March 1996, MCJ prisoner Milton Christensen filed a pro se lawsuit that alleged dangerous conditions at the facility. An amended class action complaint was later filed by the Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee. The trial court summarized the complaint by stating it alleged conditions at MCJ were “substandard,” resulted in “the infliction of needless pain and suffering,” and created “a threat to the inmate’s mental and physical well-being.” The cause of the unconstitutional jail conditions was overcrowding.

In May 2001, the trial court approved a 48-page settlement agreement and consent decree. Relevant to the subsequent contempt proceeding, the court noted that MCJ was not to keep prisoners in the jail longer than thirty hours without assigning a bed. The midnight population count was not to exceed 1,100, and prisoners would not be kept in the booking area longer than thirty hours.

The court found that between November 2001 and April 2004, MCJ violated the consent decree on 16,662 separate occasions by failing to comply with the thirty-hour restriction. According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, court documents painted a bleak picture of conditions at the facility.

The booking room, which was described as a “bus-station-like waiting room” surrounded by 17 steel-door cells, was crammed with more than 100 prisoners at a time, both men and women. They would be held in the booking area for up to four days without a bed, mattress or blanket. Prisoners were not allowed to lie down or sleep even if they were sitting up.

When the waiting room became overcrowded, the women would be placed in cells so the men could sit on the benches. The cells contained one concrete slab that was large enough for one person to lie upon. Up to 21 other women would be placed in each cell. The women slept atop each other, using one another’s buttocks for pillows.

While in the booking area, prisoners were not provided access to showers, hygiene products or a change of clothes. When it came time to eat, the fare was bologna sandwiches for all three meals. One pregnant 19-year-old detainee lost 9 pounds during her three-day stay at MCJ.

The plaintiffs moved to hold MCJ officials in contempt, and sought monetary sanctions for violations of the consent decree. Although the trial court specifically found that “Milwaukee County’s actions were intentional and constitute contempt of court,” it concluded that “the remedial sanctions that the plaintiff class seeks, based upon a plain reading of the applicable statutes, is not available.” The plaintiffs appealed.

The appellate court found that “Wisconsin Statutes permit a court to enforce its orders by imposing either remedial or punitive sanctions.” See: Wis. Stat § 785.04. In some circumstances, the harm resulting from noncompliance may not be remedied merely by belated compliance with the court order.

“The legislature … specifically authorizes payment of money to compensate a victim for an injury suffered by the party as a result of a contempt of court,” the appellate court held. This applies “for injuries that occurred in the past,” because the legislature apparently recognized that bringing a party into compliance with a court order did not necessarily cure the harm that the victim of the noncompliance had already sustained due to violations of that order.

The case was therefore remanded to the trial court to determine “the sum of the money sufficient to compensate” MCJ prisoners for “loss or injury suffered” by MCJ’s violation of the consent decree. Note that the Wisconsin Supreme Court has agreed to hear this case on appeal. See: Christensen v. Sullivan, 307 Wis.2d 754, 746 N.W.2d 553 (Wis.App. 2008), review granted.

Additional source: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login

Related legal case

Christensen v. Sullivan