For­mer com­man­ders un­der Sher­iff David Clarke say he’s not in­ter­ested in run­ning a well-func­tion­ing jail.

Milwaukee Magazine - - Content - BY CASEY TOLAN

What’s wrong with the Mil­wau­kee County Jail?

RIGHT-LEAN­ING SHER­IFF David Clarke, win­ner of four elec­tions in lib­eral-friendly Mil­wau­kee County, has long courted con­tro­versy. But over the past year, he’s gone from eye­brow-rais­ing to jaw-drop­ping, with the most re­cent chap­ter (as of press time) in­volv­ing the cow­boy-hat­ted sher­iff pok­ing fun at the in­juries Mayor Tom Bar­rett sus­tained while de­fend­ing a grand­mother and child dur­ing a 2009 at­tack – swift ret­ri­bu­tion af­ter Bar­rett ac­cused Clarke, a fre­quent guest on Fox News, of “fight­ing crime one con­ser­va­tive ca­ble TV show at a time.”

Pres­sure is build­ing around the sher­iff in more ways than one, as his depart­ment faces in­tense scru­tiny in the mat­ter of four jail deaths that hap­pened within a six-month pe­riod in 2016, in­clud­ing that of a baby born to a fe­male in­mate. In Fe­bru­ary, the Mil­wau­kee County District At­tor­ney’s Of­fice be­gan a for­mal in­quest to ex­plore pos­si­ble crim­i­nal charges, and a grow­ing num­ber of in­mates’ fam­ily mem­bers have come for­ward to al­lege poor con­di­tions in the jail.

A fed­eral law­suit brought by rel­a­tives of Ter­rill Thomas, one of the men who died, claims he was sys­tem­at­i­cally tor­tured by guards who shut off the wa­ter to his cell, lead­ing to his painful death by de­hy­dra­tion. The le­gal team be­hind Thomas says it has iden­ti­fied other in­stances where with­hold­ing wa­ter ap­pears to have been used as pun­ish­ment, in­clud­ing the case of An­to­nio Cowser, 49, a men­tally ill man who died in 2011 af­ter re­fus­ing food for five days.

As a vet­eran of the Sher­iff’s Depart­ment, Kerri McKen­zie had a front-row seat when Clarke took over as county sher­iff in 2002 and as­sumed com­mand of the county’s lockup fa­cil­i­ties, in­clud­ing the Mil­wau­kee County Jail, where de­fen­dants await­ing trial and in­mates serv­ing short sen­tences are in­car­cer­ated. From the be­gin­ning, she says, it was ob­vi­ous that the sher­iff’s top pri­or­ity wasn’t man­ag­ing the jail, an im­pos­ing build­ing at­tached to the Mil­wau­kee County Court­house. Clarke seemed to pre­fer the more glam­orous parts of his job, such as his ap­pear­ances on TV. “He gave [the jail] the least amount of at­ten­tion, un­less there was an in­ci­dent,” say McKen­zie, who rose to the rank of cap­tain while work­ing in the jail. “He gave it the least re­sources.”

Clarke’s ad­min­is­tra­tion ended pro­gram­ming and classes for in­mates and fed many of them nu­traloaf, a dis­gust­ing mash of left­over in­gre­di­ents used in some jails as pun­ish­ment. Other pol­icy di­rec­tives ranged from hang­ing up pho­tos of the sher­iff to re­quir­ing in­mates to turn and face a wall when­ever a guard passed them in the hall­way. “What he re­ally wanted to do was treat in­mates like an­i­mals,” McKen­zie says. “He thinks they should be ware­housed.”

A se­cond for­mer em­ployee of Clarke’s, an­other cap­tain who served in the jail, says the sher­iff’s man­age­ment style weak­ened morale and sowed dis­or­der. Clarke would hold Tues­day meet- ings among his top deputies that would some­times stretch on for sev­eral hours and pro­vided a stage for the sher­iff to pon­tif­i­cate about his views. When­ever a mis­take or prob­lem arose, the sher­iff would make ac­cu­sa­tions and be­lit­tle sub­or­di­nates in front of their peers, says the for­mer cap­tain, who, un­like McKen­zie, asked not to be named in or­der to avoid an­tag­o­niz­ing Clarke. The sher­iff also gave home­work to of­fi­cers in the form of long book re­ports on ti­tles he’d se­lect, such as the busi­ness man­age­ment best­seller How the Mighty Fall. “I have seen him make peo­ple cry in those meet­ings,” the of­fi­cer says. “There was al­most glee in pun­ish­ing peo­ple.”

“It’s an on­go­ing night­mare for the peo­ple who are still there,” says McKen­zie, who is now an as­sis­tant su­per­in­ten­dent at the County House of Cor­rec­tion, which is man­aged by County Ex­ec­u­tive Chris Abele. “The pub­lic is just re­al­iz­ing how un­hinged and un­pre­dictable Clarke is, how un­safe he is for Mil­wau­kee County.”

Both for­mer cap­tains said they didn’t want to make gen­er­al­iza­tions based on the re­cent deaths, but McKen­zie pointed to a pol­icy Clarke in­tro­duced last year call­ing for in­mates to be locked in their cells for 12 hours each day, from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., a shift prompted in part by low staffing and high turnover among guards. The jail wasn’t de­signed to keep in­mates locked in for that long, McKen­zie says. When the fa­cil­ity opened in 1992, the lay­out was based on the prin­ci­ple that deputies should have face-to-face con­tact with in­mates and not be cut off from them, which al­lows prob­lems to fes­ter. Jail of­fi­cials later changed the lock-in pol­icy so that in­mates are con­fined to their cells for only nine hours each night.

McKen­zie isn’t com­pletely im­par­tial when it comes to Clarke, she ac­knowl­edges. The sher­iff fired her and sev­eral other cap­tains in late 2011 to make up for bud­get cuts, and she won her job back by tak­ing her case to the county’s Civil Ser­vice Commission. The other for­mer cap­tain was not fired by Clarke, whose of­fice didn’t re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment.

The sher­iff “didn’t feel like [the in­mates] were a pop­u­la­tion to ex­tend a lot of re­sources to,” this cap­tain says. “His con­stituents were the pub­lic who voted for him, not the peo­ple in­side the jail.”

Sher­iff David Clarke at the Con­ser­va­tive Po­lit­i­cal Ac­tion Con­fer­ence in Fe­bru­ary.

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