Close Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility?
Both activists and newly elected Gov. Evers agree on this. Its problems are many.
The Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility has maintained a polarizing presence since opening at 1015 N. 10th St. in 2001. The opaque, easily overlooked high-rise has become central in Wisconsin’s debate on mass incarceration. However, pushes by activists and politicians to close MSDF raise another question. What would replace the controversial detention center?
“MSDF does not need to be replaced,” says former MSDF detainee turned activist Alan Schultz. “It needs to be demolished, and never should have existed.” Schultz is an organizer with the activist group Close MSDF.
He argues that very question of how to replace the facility comes from having “accepted imprisonment as the only answer to violence.”
MSDF sprang out of a desperate need to address overcrowding at the Milwaukee County Jail. In 1997, then Sheriff Leverett Baldwin blasted Milwaukee’s overcrowding issues in an editorial in the Milwaukee Business Journal. He later sued the county to pressure officials to find a solution, particularly, for the many inmates returning after often minor parole violations.
At that time, Milwaukee County was still adapting to demands set by the Christensen Consent Decree. It stemmed from another lawsuit, this one filed by jail inmates in 1996, demanding better standards for treatment. Reducing overcrowding and providing adequate healthcare were just a few of the things it called for. More than 17 years after the consent decree was finalized in 2001, Milwaukee County still isn’t in full compliance with it.
In response to such issues plaguing the jail, MSDF was approved for construction. Today, the Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility is sustained by an annual budget of more than $39,000,000. Originally designed to temporarily house parole violators, it soon began accumulating other inmates. Such as those due for release within a year. Or inmates in the Alternatives to Revocation program, which favors shorter detention periods over stiffer punishments. Occasionally, MSDF would house people from facilities suffering from overcrowding.
Many problems haunting the county jail, particularly inadequate healthcare, also plague the MSDF. Over its 17 years of existence, 17 people have died inside the detention facility.
Like 34 year old Jeremy Cunningham, who suffered a fatal seizure in 2011. Cunningham, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports, turned himself in after relapsing on alcohol and drugs. He also suffered from Wolff-Parkinson White Syndrome, a chronic heart condition. Family say correctional staff weren’t monitoring Cunningham despite recommendations by nurses. When his cellmate tried calling for help, he was ordered to go back to sleep. A lawsuit has subsequently been filed in response to his death. Issues highlighted by critics range from the use of solitary confinement to how hot the cells get at the MSDF
Organizers like Schultz also point to “crimeless revocations” keeping MSDF’s beds full. “The people largely in there are in awaiting decisions and investigations on allegations of technical rule violations,” he notes. That could include a wide range of perceived infractions. By and large, a parolee’s fate is determined by their assigned probation officer.
“Close MSDF”organizers also attended a criminal justice presentation by the American Civil Liberties Union last month. Speakers discussed how crimeless revocations ultimately harm Milwaukee. In his speech, Chad Alexander, of the Milwaukee Fatherhood Initiative, said that even being suspected of a violation can earn someone more time in MSDF.
These various concerns eventually found their way into the 2018 midterm elections. Once the dust settled, Milwaukee had a new sheriff, and Wisconsin a governor. Since MSDF is a state-run facility, and outside his purview, sheriff-elect Earnell Lucas was limited in what he could say to Urban Milwaukee. He did however express a commitment to “operating the County Jail as a humane and accountable facility. Where everyone is treated with dignity and respect. I do not support the continued operation of any facility that fails to affirm these principals.”
Governor-elect Tony Evers was also contacted for this story, but we didn’t hear back. Urban Milwaukee also contacted the Wisconsin Department Of Corrections to reach representatives inside MSDF. These attempts were also unsuccessful. Evers campaigned on a platform of incarceration reform, and said he supports closing the MSDF “as soon as possible.” Just how much he can accomplish with a Republican dominated Legislature that is likely to oppose him on many issues remains to be seen.
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