Compiled by Milwaukee Courier Staff
For over two decades, human rights advocates have called for the reform of the Milwaukee County Jail. The jail has long faced credible allegations of mismanagement and inadequate respect for human dignity. Its healthcare services are in a crisis state: since 2001, the jail has not once been found in full compliance with the Christensen Decree, a federal court order governing inmate healthcare.
Between 2016 and 2018, during the administration of former Sheriff David A. Clarke, Jr. and his second-in-command, current Acting Sheriff Richard Schmidt, seven individuals died in the jail. Jails are intended to be secure institutions that keep inmates safe while awaiting trial. Because they have yet to face a jury, many jail inmates are presumed innocent. The fact that seven people died in our county jail is cause for outrage.
The case of Terrill Thomas, a Milwaukee man who died in the jail in April 2016, is deeply unsettling. Jail staff turned off the water to Thomas’s cell, where the mentally ill man languished for seven days until dying of dehydration. This senseless tragedy has given rise to criminal charges against a high-ranking jail commander and two staffers.
In another disturbing case pending in federal court, a Milwaukee woman alleges that inattention on the part of jail staff resulted in her entering labor and giving birth while detained. Her child died in the jail a few hours later. In other instances, during the past administration of the Sheriff’s Office, expectant mothers, although taken to hospitals, were forced to give birth in shackles.
The allegations in these cases suggest a culture of gross disregard for human life and dignity. This culture affects not only the Sheriff’s Office, which manages the jail, but Armor Correctional Health Services, the jail’s medical provider. Embattled by claims that it fails to provide inmates with competent medical care, Armor itself faces criminal charges relating to Thomas’s dehydration death. Armor also faces multiple civil lawsuits alleging inadequate medical care.
The Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office and its leaders are sworn to protect the dignity and the rights of everyone in our community. Everyone detained in the Milwaukee County Jail possesses human dignity and human rights. They are fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, neighbors and friends. When the leaders of the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office fail to ensure that these individuals are kept safe, the organization loses the public’s trust.
As members of the public, we cannot accept the senseless loss of life within a county institution. Inspired by the memory of those we have lost, we must demand change. The rhetoric of current Sheriff’s Office leaders, including Acting Sheriff Schmidt, is grossly insufficient. Although Schmidt claims to have “transformed” the jail during his brief time in office, he obscures the fact that as Sheriff Clarke’s chief deputy from 2010 to 2017, he was directly responsible for day-to-day operations, including oversight of the jail. Furthermore, the jail continues to face questions regarding staffing shortages and a culture that fails to respect the rights of all inmates.
No one should die in a holding facility for individuals who are presumed innocent of any alleged crime. No one should give birth in a jail cell or in shackles. The fact that such things need to be said is a tragedy. The fact that such things occurred is an indictment of the culture within the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office and of its leaders.
In order to change this culture, we need to take action. We need to advocate for sweeping changes to practices within the jail, and we need to hold the Sheriff’s Office accountable for implementing those changes. We need to stand up to the culture of negligence that allowed seven people housed in a county facility to die in 18 months. We need to demand a culture of humanity within the jail, one that guarantees that all inmates receive humane treatment. We can and must ensure that not one more life is lost. The Sheriff’s Office and its leaders are entrusted with keeping people safe. When they do not, we must hold them accountable, with our voices and with our votes.