Graham Kilmer
MKE County

Did Sheriff Transfer Inmates to Racine Without Permission?

Sheriff began making transfers at significant costs before getting board buy-in.

By - Jan 16th, 2023 03:07 pm
Sheriff Earnell Lucas speaking at a press conference on June 26th, 2020. Photo by Graham Kilmer.

Sheriff Earnell Lucas speaking at a press conference on June 26th, 2020. Photo by Graham Kilmer.

Can the Milwaukee County Sheriff transfer inmates to another county’s jail without approval from the county board and county executive? That appears to be what happened under the leadership of former Sheriff Earnell Lucas.

The sheriff actually began transferring people to Racine’s jail in July — spending just over $34,000 that month, according to a new report. It was only in September that Denita Ball, then the Chief Deputy Sheriff, went before the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors seeking approval for an intergovernmental cooperation agreement with Racine County and $497,000 for daily fees that Racine would charge for holding inmates transferred from the crowded Milwaukee County Jail.

At a meeting of the board’s Finance Committee in September, Ball told the board that the contract with Racine would be backdated to July 18. Language in the contract indicates this would be the first day that the Milwaukee County Sheriffs Office (MCSO) transferred someone to the jail in Racine.

As a constitutional officer, the sheriff has the authority to spend their budget however they see fit — without board approval that is — in order to meet the duties assigned to the office by state law. They also have broad authority over the people in their jail. “Under the state constitution and state statutes, sheriffs have broad discretion to determine how best to protect public safety and the health and safety of people in their care and custody, as well as Sheriff’s Office deputies, corrections officers, and other staff. Accordingly, the Sheriffs of Racine County and Milwaukee County made a determination that that duty could be best executed by temporarily placing some persons in Milwaukee County’s care at the Racine County Jail,” Milwaukee County Corporation Counsel Margaret Daun told Urban Milwaukee.

But the transferring of inmates still represents a major diversion from the sheriff’s office’s practices in the jail. And it would be months before it saw daylight. “That is a massive policy change, right,” said Sup. Ryan Clancy, chair of the board’s Judiciary, Safety and General Services Committee and a regular critic of the sheriff’s office, “sending folks outside of our county where we have even less oversight over the facilities than we do in our own jail is something that absolutely needs to come before the board.”

The board did not meet in August and would not have been able to consider an agreement until September — though supervisors did meet for their scheduled monthly meeting 10 days after the first person was transferred to Racine and a special meeting could have been requested. The actual agreement was not signed by County Executive David Crowley until Oct. 31. This was more than three months after Sheriff Lucas had started moving inmates to Racine, and 10 days after Lucas resigned as sheriff. He was succeeded as acting sheriff by Ball, who was later elected to the position in the November 8 election.

The state has a specific statute governing the use of another county’s jail. It reads, “Courts, judges and officers of any county having no jail and no cooperative agreement… may sentence, commit or deliver any person to the jail of any other county as if that jail existed in their own county.” But that would not apply to Milwaukee, which has its own jail. However, another statute also grants the sheriff wide discretion to transfer people to protect their safety. It reads: “In an emergency and for the safety of prisoners in any jail, the sheriff or other keeper may remove them to a place of safety and there confine them so long as necessary. If any county jail is destroyed or is insecure for keeping prisoners, the sheriff may remove them to some other county jail, where they shall be received and kept as if committed thereto, but at the expense of the county from which they were removed.”

Clancy told Urban Milwaukee it is “incredibly frustrating” that the MCSO treats “something that has not been done in recent memory just as an internal policy change.” The supervisor noted that a policy shift like this has immediate impacts on families in Milwaukee County whose loved ones are transferred to another county.

The sheriff’s office is going before the board this month seeking an extension of the intergovernmental cooperation agreement that will cover the rest of 2023. The report from the sheriff’s office shows it is expecting to owe Racine County approximately $304,000 for transfers in 2022 — leaving approximately $193,00 left from the September funding allocation.

The jail has a legal capacity of 960 people, despite having 990 beds. This is because the jail’s capacity was set by court order following a 1996 lawsuit over constitutional violations and unsafe living conditions. In September, the MCSO reported, “The [jail] has been consistently over the mandated capacity limit of 960 on many days.” Which is a line repeated in the latest report headed for the county board.

While overcrowding at the jail is the main cause of this new policy, a major contributing factor is the ongoing shortage of correctional officers for both the jail and the Community Reintegration Center (CRC), formerly known as the House of Corrections. Both facilities were reporting staffing levels at 50% to 60% of the needed number throughout 2022.

Clancy told Urban Milwaukee that, given the staffing challenges at the jail and the CRC, “the obvious answer is that we need to incarcerate fewer people.” He pointed to the reduction in jail population at the start of the pandemic, noting that it was within the power of the judiciary to do that again.

Historically, the people being sent to Racine County would have been moved to the CRC. But the CRC has been accepting fewer transfers of pre-trial defendants from the jail because of its staffing shortage. “It would be unsafe for me to open up more dormitories right now,” CRC superintendent Chantell Jewell said. “My staff are stretched very thin.”

Conditions in the jail have been described as unsafe and unfit for the persons living and working here by inmates and staff. The overcrowding has led to the department to house new people coming into the facility in the booking room for as long as 50 hours, according to a sheriff’s report. There were two suicides in the jail in 2022.

The sheriff’s office has also reported, twice now, that local police departments are holding people in custody at their police stations for longer periods of time waiting for the jail to accept a transfer.” This is a concern for them as their facilities are not set up for long term care. They have no on-site medical resources, nor do they have an ability to provide conventional custodial food service, linen exchange, and [have] a limited ability to provide routine hygiene amenities for their arrestees.”

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