Graham Kilmer
MKE County

Overcrowded Jail Seeks to Send Inmates to Racine

County Jail regularly exceeding its legal capacity, needs solution, Sheriff's Office says.

By - Sep 15th, 2022 04:07 pm
Milwaukee County Jail and Milwaukee County Courthouse. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

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

The Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) is seeking nearly half a million dollars so it can pay Racine County to take some of the inmates from the severely overcrowded Milwaukee County Jail.

The jail has approximately 990 beds in the facility, but it has a legal cap on the number of people it can house at 960. That legal cap comes from a court-ordered consent decree stemming from a lawsuit over constitutional violations and unsafe living conditions filed in 1996.

A report from the MCSO states that the jail has regularly exceeded its 960-person legal capacity. This has led the jail to hold people in the booking room, at times for longer than two days.

“We try to house them as safe as we can in the booking room until a bed becomes available,” Inspector Aaron Dobson, commander of the Milwaukee County Jail, told the county board’s Committee on Judiciary, Law Enforcement and General Services on Wednesday. “And we try to make them as comfortable as we can while they’re down there; we do changeovers, have them take showers, offer hot meals in the booking room, and even throw mattresses on the floor for lack of any better option.”

The MCSO is seeking approximately $497,000 from the county’s contingency account and approval of an intergovernmental cooperation agreement with Racine County to pay it to hold people in their jail for Milwaukee County.

The contingency fund and its use has been regularly debated by the board since this legislative session began. The Milwaukee County Office of the Comptroller is projecting the county’s 2022 budget will break even by the end of the year, but that projection relies on using all the funds currently in the contingency account to balance the budget.

Dobson told the board’s Finance Committee Thursday that the jail had 958 people in custody as of that morning, and would likely be over the legal cap by the end of the day. “And we currently have no beds available for male general population occupants.”

In the past, the jail would transfer people held there to the Milwaukee County House of Correction (HOC) when the jail got too crowded, said MCSO Chief Deputy Denita Ball, but the HOC is currently facing a staffing crisis and does not have enough personnel to safely accept more transfers from the jail.

HOC Superintendent Chantell Jewell said the HOC is only staffed at 58% right now, and it has been attempting to hire more Corrections Officer, holding nine recruitment events over the past month.

“It would be unsafe for me to open up more dormitories right now,” Jewel said. “My staff are stretched very thin.”

The jail is also experiencing a staffing crisis. And both facilities are having to use mandatory overtime to keep up staffing levels. Deputy Sheriffs who are certified to work in a corrections setting have also been pulled from other functions like patrol and the courts to work in the jail. But all of this, Dobson told the Finance Committee, has led to more attrition in the departments, worsening the staffing situation.

The plan received pushback from supervisors concerned that the county would lose control and oversight of the living conditions for the people sent to the jail in Racine. Supervisors Juan Miguel Martinez and Ryan Clancy both voiced concerns about whether or not county staff will be allowed to inspect the Racine jail. Clancy also noted that there have been deaths in the Racine County jail — as there have been in the Milwaukee jail.

A major contributor to the overcrowding at the Milwaukee jail has been the backlog of cases in the criminal courts caused by a slowdown in proceedings during the COVID-19 pandemic. Sup. Sequanna Taylor noted that court officials have indicated it could take at least a year to get through the backlog, “What type of timeframe are we looking at for this?” she asked.

Ball said the intention is to send people to Racine’s jail on a temporary basis, noting that once staffing at the HOC improves, the jail will stop transferring to Racine County and return to transferring to HOC when it’s at capacity. Dobson said Racine County has the highest paid correctional officers in the state and does not face the staffing crisis Milwaukee does.

Martinez questioned at both the judiciary and finance committee meetings why the funds for the deal with Racine must come out of contingency and not the sheriff’s budget. MCSO officials stated that mandatory overtime has eaten into their budget.

The Finance Committee recommended approving the proposed agreement with Racine and the nearly half a million in contingency funding. It will next go before the full board.

Community advocates for incarcerated people spoke at the Finance Committee. Kandis Voelske, with the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC), said she is concerned about the county losing oversight of the facility that will house some of the people they are responsible for and that local advocates or county officials have not been able to personally inspect the conditions of the jail in Racine and there is no assurances that such access will be granted. Voelske, and another speaker from with IWOC, Robert Tebow, said they thought the funding being requested would be better spent improving the conditions in Milwaukee’s jail.

If you think stories like this are important, become a member of Urban Milwaukee and help support real, independent journalism. Plus you get some cool added benefits.

Leave a Reply

You must be an Urban Milwaukee member to leave a comment. Membership, which includes a host of perks, including an ad-free website, tickets to marquee events like Summerfest, the Wisconsin State Fair and the Florentine Opera, a better photo browser and access to members-only, behind-the-scenes tours, starts at $9/month. Learn more.

Join now and cancel anytime.

If you are an existing member, sign-in to leave a comment.

Have questions? Need to report an error? Contact Us