Graham Kilmer
MKE County

County Jail Visits Remain Elusive Goal

Committee rejects report with cost estimates on video, in-person visitations at jail, House of Correction.

By - Sep 21st, 2022 10:02 am
Milwaukee County Jail and Milwaukee County Courthouse. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

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

Milwaukee County has taken a first step toward bringing back visitation at the jail, and is ready to bring it back at the House of Correction (HOC).

But officials say the ongoing staffing shortage at both the jail and the HOC is hampering efforts to bring visitation back. And a county board committee recently slammed the brakes on a report that included some preliminary cost estimates for bringing visitation back to the jail.

In February, the Milwaukee county board debated, but did not adopt a proposal to make phone and video calling at the jail and House of Correction free. Instead the board adopted a watered-down version of the policy that would have the county annually reduce the rate it charged for phone calls.

Then in May, the county board approved a resolution stating that it’s the official policy of Milwaukee County to restore in-person visitation and asking the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) for cost estimates, potential operational benefits and what neighboring jurisdictions or peer institutions are doing with visitation and video calling.

That report came back to the Committee on Judiciary, Law Enforcement and General Services earlier this month. It included preliminary estimates for engineering and technology consulting ($15-25,000), a feasibility study ($140,000) and a cost for implementing in-person visitation ($3-7 million).

Jail Commander Inspector Aaron Dobson told the committee that after the board passed the resolution in May, he did a walk-through of the former visitation area at the jail with facilities staff from the county and “they realized very quickly it was beyond their ability to renovate this area and recommended we do an RFP.”

Tony MacLellan, contract manager for the county’s procurement division, said the county cannot legally request proposals from interested contractors without funding, or a price quote or an intention to enter into a contract, so a request for information, or RFI, was issued instead

“So our hope was that we could bring these responses back to you and have you agree to some allocation of funding to the department so that procurement could, in good faith, issue an RFP on this item,” MacLellan said.

But the report never made it out of committee. On a unanimous vote, the committee, chaired by Sup. Ryan Clancy, laid it over; keeping it from advancing to the full board to be officially placed on file.

“It looks to me like this is not what we asked for,” Clancy said, explaining that the section of the report detailing the potential operational benefits of in-person visitation “grudgingly admits” that there are data supported benefits to in-person operations, but it also “tells why visitation is not actually a good thing contrary to the data.”

Clancy also expressed his frustration that “no sources were cited in this report” and asked where the MCSO got its information, saying, “it seems to be a lot of opinion in this report, but very few facts.” Clancy said he drew a distinction between video calling and visitation, and did not think the former was in any way a substitute for the latter, something the report and Inspector Dobson disagreed with.

Dobson said the firms that responded to the RFI provided the following information: parents who receive visits from children have lower recidivism rates; video calls can be easier for people with children as they don’t have to subject the kids to security measures; maintaining video calling is recommended even if in-person visitation is restored; and video is the securest and safest option for visitation.

Clancy responded that he was “a little bit disturbed,” saying he thought the MCSO would do the research. “I am troubled that vendors seem to be driving policy and policy decisions, if the only facts in this report are coming from people that are trying to sell us something.”

Later in the meeting, MacLellan said the RFI effort didn’t just solicit information from vendors, but also Worth Rises, MacArthur Foundation, NAACP, Equal Justice Initiative, Vera Institute, Center for Prison Reform, Nation Inside and the PEW Charitable Trusts. “Unfortunately, none of those entities chose to respond to us.”

The RFI was undertaken with the assumption that the county’s policy had already been set by the board with its May resolution. “We didn’t even take into consideration that we might not do this,” Maclellan said, explaining that the RFI was sent out “with the full expectation that what we were asking you for was funding to engage in the effort.”

While Clancy grilled Dobson on the report, he cited statistics from studies estimating the rates at which in-person visitation reduced recidivism and had a positive impact on prisoner behavior and safety. He then asked whether MCSO had data on how many violent incidents, instances of people being re-incarcerated and how much money the county has spent “because we banned and monetized visitation two decades ago?”

Dobson responded that MCSO did not have any data answering that question. Clancy responded that he hoped that data would be understood as “relevant to the operation of the jail” and that he hoped to see it in the future.

Clancy asked how much the MCSO asked for in the 2023 budget to restore visitation. 

Dobson responded that the county board should fund a feasibility study so that the county and the MCSO can have a hard cost estimate and that the MCSO prioritized funding to get to full staffing in their 2023 request, saying “We understand that everything isn’t going to get funded.”

Clancy closed out discussion of the report saying it “did not do what we intended for it to do,” and added that he thinks “it’s something that we owe the public a robust discussion on.”

The committee will not meet again until November, as the board passed a resolution this year setting October aside just for working on the annual budget.

HOC Ready for Visitation, Lacks Staff

Like the jail, the House of Correction (HOC) is reporting a severe shortage of corrections officers. The HOC falls under the authority of the county executive, not the MCSO.

In-person visitation would require an additional four officers a day, and on Sundays an additional six officers, said David Rugaber, HOC assistant superintendent.

“We do have 18 booths available for in-person visitation, we simply currently don’t have the staff,” Rugaber said.

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