Despite the best efforts of a socialist official, the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors may vote this morning to block any meaningful action on a spate of deaths at the county jail.

Milwaukee County Jail. (Corey Coyle / Wikimedia Commons)

There’s something rotten at the Milwaukee County Jail.

In June last year, Brieon Green wrapped a phone cord around his neck twenty-eight minutes after being booked, strangling himself to death as an officer strolled past his cell. Six months later, Cilivea Thyrion swallowed pieces of an unused diaper, killing herself while on suicide watch. A month after that, Octaviano Juarez-Corro was found dead with a ligature around his neck, after the attending officer skipped checking his and several other cells. In another two months, Terrance Mack was found unresponsive in his cell, the night after telling his fiancée he was hurting. Between then and this past August, another two men died in custody at the jail, bringing the toll to six deaths in fourteen months.

“No other institutions have had that many deaths,” says Milwaukee County supervisor Ryan Clancy.

Now he and criminal justice activists are saying the county government is trying to kill any attempt at accountability for the spate of in-custody deaths.

This morning, the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors will vote on whether to place on file an audit report from the county Sheriff’s Office on operations at the jail. He and others who are fighting to get to the bottom of what’s going on in the facility fear that if the board votes to file what they’ve called an “inadequate” and “lacking” report, it will mean the end of the matter, sweeping the entire scandal under the rug.

“The report was supposed to be reviewed again in December, but they took it to a different committee, then voted to pass it through, and consider it essentially for adoption,” says Omar Flores, cofounder of the Milwaukee Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, one of the groups that has been demanding accountability for the deaths. “What they’re trying to do is bypass process.”

“An Unintelligible Mess”

After Terrance Mack’s death this past March, Clancy — a Democratic Socialists of America member who won reelection for another two-year term on the board of supervisors in 2022, and who now also sits in the Wisconsin State Legislatureled the charge for an audit. He and fellow county supervisor Felisia Martin soon coauthored and, in May, successfully passed a resolution mandating a report that would outline, among other things, what was being done in the facility, best practices, and a plan for how to improve existing policies to prevent further loss of life in the jail.

The final product fell far short of that. The bureaucratic equivalent of a college student padding out an exam answer they didn’t study for, the report made scant mention of the specific cases and largely eschewed the requests of the resolution, offering instead lengthy, boilerplate descriptions of existing processes and operations.

In a six-hour-long Judiciary, Law Enforcement and General Services (JLEGS) hearing on September 11, one member of the public called it “unacceptable,” charging that it “does not answer any of the questions” of the public or families of those who died, and that it was “full of irrelevant data points, copy-pasted course descriptions, and other nonsense.” A representative of Prison Action Milwaukee put forward a long list of questions about the report and operations at the jail, including whether the facility posted profits and how they were spent, why admittedly understaffed medical services were still certified, and what the cause was of the numerous deaths due to medical conditions in the facility. Another called it a “half-assed job” and an “unintelligible mess.”

In both the report and in testimony, jail officers and the sheriff’s office highlighted the jail’s very real chronic staffing problems, blamed the rise in crime over the pandemic, and called for more funding as a solution. But critics questioned why facilities with similar issues, like Milwaukee’s Community Reintegration Center, didn’t have the same level of deaths. Several mentioned the county’s refusal to release video of the incident, even though Brieon Green’s family had seen surveillance footage of a guard walking past Green’s cell as he hung himself.

At the time, Clancy called it “an empty grab for more money, and a stark refusal to engage with policies surrounding the many in-custody deaths that continue to happen.” At the JLEGS hearing, he questioned where the specific plans were in the report to prevent such incidents from happening again. He recently told Jacobin that it struck him “as more a hostage situation than a report: ‘People will be dying if you don’t give us more money.’”

While the resolution mandated a research plan to help the board and public understand the county sheriff’s office budget, the office flatly declined to carry out this request, with the report stating that “a streamlined, easy-to-understand explanation of not only the numbers, but the mission and goals underlying the fund allocation decisions” would, if necessary, be submitted all the way in the third quarter of 2024 — by which point, incidentally, Clancy’s term would be over.

The testimony of Kerrie Hirte, the mother of Cilivea Thyrion, was particularly harrowing. “This whole thing has been very hard to take in coming to these meetings and hearing everything that’s going on, when I lost my only child in this facility, when I feel it could’ve been prevented,” she told the committee. Hirte mentioned her daughter’s long history of suicide attempts and hospital stays, and recounted that she had told her that, while at the facility, her medication was being mismanaged, that she was thrown into solitary confinement arbitrarily, and that the officers there mocked her.

The county supervisors appear to want to shut the book on the case and move on. At the September 11 hearing, one board member alternated between defending the Sheriff’s Office and complaining about the length and late hour of the meeting, as representatives of the office called to answer the many public questions — many of which didn’t have time to be addressed — at a later date. Then, at an audit committee meeting two days later, supervisors Liz Sumner and Deanna Alexander pushed to place the report on file and turn their attention to other matters, citing the length of the earlier hearing and the idea, in their view, that it had gotten “out of control.” Clancy protested the push, saying it would be “a grave insult to the people who have lost a loved one.”

Despite being told that putting it on file would effectively close the matter and that the public questions that went unaddressed in the JLEGS hearing would be effectively shut down, three supervisors voted in favor of doing so, leaving the committee deadlocked. The vote means the matter will now be decided at the board of supervisors meeting this morning.

“An Attack on Accountability”

Clancy has since come under attack for a Facebook comment charging that the job of policing has “neither dignity nor value.” Milwaukee County sheriff Denita Ball folded a denunciation of the comment into her statement responding to Clancy’s criticism of the audit report’s inadequacies. Three weeks later, his fellow county supervisor, Anthony Staskunas, demanded in a formal letter to the board’s chairwoman that Clancy be removed as the chairperson of JLEGS over the Facebook post, which he called “inflammatory and dangerous.”

Whatever one thinks about the remark, Clancy and those allied with him believe the outrage is opportunistic and politically motivated, an attempt to undermine the larger issue he’s fighting for.

“I don’t really think that Statskunas believes what he’s saying,” Flores says. “This is an attack on the accountability and transparency that Ryan and our organization have been pushing for.”

None of this is a new problem at the facility or the county, which saw eighteen in-custody deaths between 2008 and 2012, many of them suicides. The Milwaukee County Jail specifically has seen thirteen people die since 2018 while in custody, six of them suicides and seven related to preexisting conditions,

Depending on how it shakes out, this morning’s board of supervisors vote on the audit report (which you can livestream here) may well be a marker of the success of this effort to shut down accountability over the Milwaukee County Jail’s deplorable record. In the meantime, the facility was rocked by a protest last month, which saw twenty-seven inmates ranging from ages seventeen to fifty-seven barricade themselves in the facility’s library and refuse to leave, demanding more recreation time. Whether or not transparency is stifled, it seems the jail and its conditions aren’t likely to fade from the headlines.

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