Graham Kilmer
MKE County

Sheriff Reports Jail is Understaffed, Overpopulated

Staffing data is part of information release for county board's jail inquiry.

By - Aug 22nd, 2023 07:06 pm
Milwaukee County Jail. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Milwaukee County Jail. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

The Milwaukee County Sheriff‘s Office (MCSO) continues to report that the Milwaukee County Jail is understaffed both in terms of correctional officers and medical personnel at the same time it is overpopulated.

This comes from a first batch of reports and documents released in response to an inquiry by the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors into the jail and its operations. The inquiry was initiated in the wake of a spate of deaths among people in custody at the jail. Supervisors requested jail and MCSO policies and manuals, organizational breakdowns, a list of reports created by the agency and a detailed report on the sheriff’s budget among other things

The MCSO will appear before the county board in September for hearings on the reports. The goal of the board’s inquiry is to give policymakers and the public a detailed understanding of the policies and practices of the agency and the jail in order to work toward solutions or policies that could prevent deaths in the facility. The MCSO has provided hundreds of pages of reports and policy documents in an initial response, noting that changes and additions can be made “given the fluid, ever- and rapidly changing, environment in which it is submitted.”

The report covers the jail’s staffing crisis, which it presents as the most acute problem facing the facility. It provides reports and policy documents related to jail health care provision and the legal framework under which it operates. It also includes a preliminary breakdown of the sheriff’s budget, with a more detailed report building on it scheduled for 2024.

The understaffing at the jail was not a revelation. But according to data compiled by the MCSO, the jail has one of the highest occupant-to-staff ratios in the state. Only St. Croix County Jail had a higher occupant-to-staff ratio, and that facility has approximately one-fifth the population of Milwaukee’s jail.

In order to staff the three shifts at the jail, even at levels the agency considers suboptimal, MCSO is relying heavily on voluntary and mandatory overtime. At times approximately half of the corrections officers working a shift are there on voluntary or forced overtime.

The understaffing extends to the jail’s health care provider, Wellpath LLC, which is also understaffed at the facility based upon reports from third-party monitors.

The population of the jail fluctuates daily, when between 40 and 70 people are brought into custody. This number is lower than pre-pandemic volumes, when approximately 100 were brought into the jail every day. That is because the jail stopped taking most people arrested for misdemeanors into custody in 2020.

The MCSO said it is facing pressure from municipal police departments to take people into custody on misdemeanor arrests. Such a policy would increase the jail population by approximately 20o, the MCSO estimates.

The jail has a legal population cap of 960 people in custody. This was ordered by the courts as part of a settlement to a 1996 lawsuit. The settlement comes with a number of requirements called a “consent decree.” Among them are court-ordered monitoring by third-party groups of jail health care and its population. The daily intake of people under arrest means the jail is frequently above the legal cap on its population.

The MCSO reported population data from June 1 of this year showing there were 968 people in the jail. The majority, or 67%, were in custody pending the completion of court cases for what the MCSO labels “charges associated with violent felonies.” On June 1, the most common charge among people at the jail was 1st Degree Intentional Homicide.

The MCSO is requesting a staffing review by an independent third party that would determine the staffing needed to meet the jail’s legal requirements and to operate under the best standards. “Depending on the Staffing Analysis results, MCSO will likely be requesting additional funding to achieve the recommended staffing levels.”

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