Graham Kilmer
MKE County

Proposal Limits Cost of Jail Visits, Food

Sup. Clancy proposes free phone, video calls and limits on commissary charges for food.

By - Sep 7th, 2021 12:51 pm
Milwaukee County Jail and Milwaukee County Courthouse. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Milwaukee County Jail and Milwaukee County Courthouse. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Milwaukee County Supervisor Ryan Clancy has sponsored two pieces of legislation intended to make it easier and less expensive for inmates at the Milwaukee County Jail and the House of Correction (HOC) to speak with family members or eat decent food. 

Clancy’s first resolution would allow people incarcerated at the jail or the HOC at least 75 minutes of free voice calls and video calls. The second resolution would limit the amount that can be charged for items in the commissary to at or below the Manufacturers Suggested Retail Price (MSRP). If there is no MSRP, then the price is limited to 125% of the average price charged in Milwaukee County.

If approved, according to fiscal analysis by the Office of the Milwaukee County Comptroller, the county would lose $2.8 million in revenue just by providing the additional free phone and video calls.

But that, Clancy told Urban Milwaukee, is precisely the problem. Morally speaking, the detention and incarceration of people should not be a source of revenue for the local government, or a source of profit for a private company, Clancy said. “We cannot continue to look at incarcerated people and their families as a revenue stream.” 

The Milwaukee County Jail has not had in-person visitation for the people held there since 2002, when David Clarke took over as Milwaukee County Sheriff. For nearly the past 20 years, the only way to visit has been through audio and video calls.

“That, in itself, is just horrific and immoral,” Clancy said.

In 2014, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that the video visitation system being used at the jail broke down, and an attorney with the Office of Corporation Counsel suggested that the jail could go back to in-person visitation while the system was down. After a back and forth between Clarke and then County Executive Chris Abele over who was to blame for the system failure, the board voted to seek out a new visitation system.

Families can access free visitation by going to the jail, but they’re still not allowed to visit with someone there in person. Even when physically at the jail, visitation is done through a video service. The county sheriff’s office has contracted with the company HomeWav for the video visitation services.

In his resolution, Clancy cites several studies documenting the importance that visitations — maintaining ties to family and community — plays in reducing rates of recidivism, and that the cost of phone and video services is prohibitive for many families trying to maintain contact with incarcerated people.

Clancy even thinks his proposal providing more free visitation is modest. “We’re only talking about five, fifteen minute calls per week.”

Clancy toured the Milwaukee County Jail in January and he said, “Almost every person mentioned how terrible the food was.”

The county contracts with Aramark, an international food service corporation, to provide both the regular meals and the commissary services at the jail and the HOC. The latest one-year contract for the HOC, approved in April of this year, has the county paying Aramark $2.7 million for food services throughout 2022.

Because Aramark is in charge of both food services and the commissary, Clancy said, this creates a financial incentive to serve food that many inmates find inedible. If the food served for free is so bad that no one eats it, they go to the commissary and buy food at a significant markup.

It’s “a way to serve terrible food and then profit doubly,” Clancy said, since the county pays Aramark to serve meals whether the meals are eaten or not. “It’s shameful.”

The Milwaukee County Jail and Aramark have been sued in the past for serving something called “nutraloaf” after it made an inmate gravely ill. The loaf, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported in 2013, is a mixture of “poultry, vegetables and beans, biscuit mix and something called ‘dairy blend’.” Aramark, the paper reported, served Nutraloaf at prisons and jails around the country, and it is often served as part of punishment for poor behavior.

Clancy said he would love to move to a model where a food services vendor is being paid “per consumed meal” to provide an incentive to serve actual quality meals to the people held in the jail or HOC. This resolution, limiting how much a vendor can charge for goods in the commissary, is simply a “stopgap” measure, he said.

One thought on “MKE County: Proposal Limits Cost of Jail Visits, Food”

  1. Jaimcb says:

    Thanks for covering this! Having a family member incarcerated is horrible enough. Having to pay as much as $25 per phone call is an abomination. Not able to meet in-person has only been further complicated by Covid-19 so video calls are the only communication thread that links back to family and other support systems.

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