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Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke’s Jail Under Fire for Deaths, Civil Rights Abuses

by Christopher Zoukis

At least four people, including a newborn, have died in Wisconsin’s Milwaukee County Jail since April 2016. The facility, run by Sheriff David A. Clarke, Jr., houses about 950 detainees daily. The string of deaths has raised concerns about conditions at the jail, including whether adequate medical care is being provided.

The deaths have also led to questions about Sheriff Clarke, who claimed in May 2017 that he had been appointed by President Trump to serve in a leadership position in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security – a position he accepted. The White House refused to confirm Clarke’s appointment, which he then said he rescinded in June 2017 following news reports that he had plagiarized parts of his master’s thesis.

Clarke, a controversial figure who is both African-American and an outspoken Trump supporter, has become known for his inflammatory comments on race, criminal justice and politics. In a July 2016 speech at the Republican National Convention, the sheriff – who ran and was elected as a Democrat – compared the Black Lives Matter movement to the KKK. In 2015 he told the Fox and Friends news show that “police brutality ended in the 1960s.” And in a podcast that same year on his personal website, he said blacks sell drugs because they are “uneducated ... lazy ... and [] morally bankrupt.”

But while Sheriff Clarke has been currying political clout – he considered running for mayor of Milwaukee in 2016 – prisoners have been dying in his jail and Milwaukee County auditors launched an investigation into medical care at the facility.

The April 2016 death of 38-year-old detainee Terrill J. Thomas was ruled a homicide by the medical examiner’s office. Thomas died of “profound dehydration,” among other factors. Other prisoners reportedly indicated that the water supply in Thomas’ cell was shut off by jail staff for a week; in May 2017, a grand jury recommended criminal charges against seven jail employees in connection with Thomas’ death, though thus far no charges have been brought. A lawsuit filed by his family remains pending.

“For seven straight days, from April 17, 2016 until his death on April 24, 2016, Mr. Thomas remained locked alone in his cell, 24 hours a day, as he literally died of thirst,” the complaint states. “They also deprived him of edible food, a functioning toilet, access to a shower, a sanitary living environment, any relief from 24-hour lockdown, and urgently needed medical and mental health care.” See: Estate of Thomas v. Milwaukee County, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Wisc.), Case No. 2:17-cv-01128-PP.

A newborn died at the jail in July 2016 after Shadé Swayzer gave birth in her cell without security or medical staff noticing. Swayzer has filed a federal lawsuit against Milwaukee County, which faces another suit filed by former prisoner Melissa Hall, 27, who claims she was shackled while pregnant at the jail. Hall’s suit, filed on March 14, 2017, was granted class-action status when 40 other former prisoners joined, claiming they had also been shackled while pregnant. See: Hall v. County of Wilwaukee, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Wisc.), Case No. 2:17-cv-00379-LA.

That litigation follows a lawsuit filed in 2014 by a woman who alleged she was repeatedly raped by a guard and shackled at the jail during 21 hours of labor. Although sexual assault charges were dropped against the guard, Xavier D. Thicklen, he pleaded guilty to felony misconduct of a public figure and was fired. [See: PLN, June 2015, p.63]. On June 7, 2017, a jury awarded $6.7 million in damages to the former prisoner, whose name was withheld. PLN will report that case and its outcome in greater detail in a future article. See: Doe v. County of Milwaukee, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Wisc.), Case No. 2:14-cv-00200-JPS.

Another lawsuit was filed in August 2017 by a woman who gave birth in her cell at the Milwaukee County Jail. Rebecca Terry claimed in her complaint that she delivered her own baby without medical care on March 10, 2014, despite begging for help, then was shackled for a week after being taken to a hospital for postpartum treatment. See: Terry v. County of Milwaukee, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Wisc.), Case No. 2:17-cv-01112-DEJ.

Other recent deaths at Clarke’s jail include those of Kristina Fiebrink, 38, who died on August 28, 2016 after she was not properly assessed or placed on a preventative heroin detoxification protocol following her arrest, and 29-year-old Michael Madden, who died at the jail in October 2016 due to an undetermined cause, though a fellow prisoner claimed a guard let Madden, who had suffered a seizure, fall and strike his head.

Sheriff Clarke’s office has refused to comment publicly on the deaths, though Clarke travels the country giving speeches to conservative groups that earned him $150,000 in gifts, travel expenses and speaking fees in 2015 alone.

“The fact that you would be stonewalling after four deaths at an institution under your command is extremely troubling,” said Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett.

Days after the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported in December 2016 on staffing and performance problems with the jail’s for-profit medical provider, Armor Correctional Health Services, county officials launched an investigation. The Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors safety subcommittee also scheduled a meeting to question sheriff’s officials about the spate of deaths. But renewing the Armor contract is up to the county’s Hall of Corrections, not the Board.

“We do have some oversight role, so it just seems to me appropriate that we ought to get a handle on what’s happening,” said Supervisor Anthony Staskunas.

But allegations of misconduct at the jail have a long history. In 2006, Milwaukee County was found in contempt of court for regularly holding prisoners in a jail booking area for more than 30 hours, in violation of an earlier consent decree. Some were denied “medication, decent food, and even the ability to lie down,” according to The Crime Report.

“The sheer number of violations, 16,662, is staggering,” Circuit Court Judge Claire Fiorenza wrote in her decision at the time, adding, “Although Milwaukee County contends that it was unaware of the extent of the problem, it is beyond this Court’s comprehension how over 16,000 violations of the consent decree could go undetected.”

Civil rights activists agree there are significant problems at Sheriff Clarke’s jail.

“The deaths do raise a lot of questions in terms of the training and supervision of people within his department, and they’ve had a lot of staff turnover,” stated Peter Koneazny, litigation director for the Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee, which is currently suing the county over conditions at the jail. “We have concerns about the management of the jail, about the overall quality of care and treatment of inmates,” he added.

Eric Heipt, an attorney representing the family of Terrill Thomas, put it more succinctly: “American citizens are dying unnecessarily in [Sheriff Clarke’s] jail, and it would be nice if he could take some responsibility for it and address the problem.” 


Sources:Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Daily Beast, Mother Jones, Huffington Post,,

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