Milwaukee jail hiring dozens of new COs for understaffed downtown facility
The new recruits will replenish the ranks of corrections officers in the Milwaukee County Jail, which has been understaffed for years due to high turnover
By Jacob Carpenter
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
MILWAUKEE COUNTY, Wis — The Milwaukee County Sheriff's Office plans to hire dozens of new corrections officers at its downtown jail, where the deaths of four people have led to questions about whether there's enough staff to supervise inmates.
The new recruits will replenish the ranks of corrections officers in the Milwaukee County Jail, which has been understaffed for years due to high turnover and an inability to find quality replacements, sheriff's officials have said. The Sheriff's Office is budgeted for 250 corrections officers, but employed about 180 before the start of the hiring spree late last year.
About 25 corrections officers have been on the job since December, with another 30 new hires scheduled to start a training academy in February. A third training class is expected to start in the spring.
The jail's short-staffing has come under scrutiny in recent months after four people died there between April and November. They include Terrill Thomas, 38, who died of profound dehydration while in his cell, and a newborn who died after her mother gave birth in her cell without any jail staff noticing.
In those two cases, a court-appointed monitor has raised the possibility that a shortage of corrections officers and poor oversight of inmates contributed to the deaths. However, no investigating agency has announced any conclusions about whether the actions or inaction of corrections officers played a role in the deaths.
Milwaukee County Sheriff David A. Clarke Jr. declined a request to discuss why the Sheriff's Office has decided to hire so many new corrections officers. In prior media interviews, Clarke has not directly addressed the circumstances surrounding the deaths of Thomas and the newborn. He has been generally dismissive of criticism of his leadership, chalking it up to political retribution for his support of President Donald Trump.
Information on the staffing changes was included in a filing by Sheriff's Office lawyers in an ongoing court case.
Pete Koneazny, litigation director for the Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee, said he's encouraged by the additional hires, but only if the new employees stick around. Turnover at the jail remains high, evidenced by the resignation or termination of 70 employees in 2016.
"They have to pay a lot of attention to the training and support and work environment, so they can hopefully retain people," said Koneazny, who represents inmates in the two-decade-old lawsuit related to jail overcrowding and medical care.
Sheriff's Office representatives have previously blamed the staffing shortage on the county's human resources department for failing to recruit new corrections officers who can make it through background checks and the training academy. Out of 936 people who applied to be corrections officers in 2016, only 78 were hired, according to county data.
With so few new hires, the current jail staff works more overtime hours, causing burnout and high turnover rates, sheriff's officials have said.
"Whatever the impediment is, those positions should be filled," Charles Bohl, a lawyer representing the Sheriff's Office, told a County Board committee in June.
Melissa Baldauff, spokeswoman for Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele, said county staff have worked diligently to hire corrections staff at both the downtown jail and the House of Correction, which falls under Abele's authority. She said the county has sought signing bonuses for new hires, teamed with the Sheriff's Office to attend recruiting fairs and advertised for positions.
The deaths of Thomas and the newborn remain under investigation by police agencies and the Milwaukee County District Attorney's Office. Those reviews should shed light on any link between the jail deaths and a shortage of corrections officers.
But Ronald Shansky, the physician who has monitored the jails for years under the terms of a court settlement, has raised the possibility of a link. In a November report, Shansky wrote Thomas' dehydration death "leaves open to question whether more careful monitoring of him might have altered the outcome." Regarding the newborn's death, Shansky wrote, "Given the shortage of officers, it is not clear how thorough the monitoring was."
In their court filing, sheriff's representatives said jail staffing levels in 2016 were slightly higher than in 2013, 2014 and 2015 -- a three-year stretch during which one person died at the jail.
In a Facebook post Wednesday, Clarke noted that the jail passed its annual state inspection in December, receiving commendation from Wisconsin Department of Corrections inspectors.
That report, however, didn't address the jail deaths at any point. It also found the jail meets all standards for inmate medical care, a vastly different conclusion from Shansky's findings in November. Shansky documented medical staffing shortages, problems with timeliness of inmate treatment and poor record-keeping at the jail.
According to sheriff's lawyers, the staff influx has already fixed two problems identified by Shansky.
Inmate lockdown now starts at 9 p.m. instead of 6 p.m. The 6 p.m. lockdown had made it difficult for people working regular daytime hours to visit loved ones at the jail.
Inmates also can now receive their final dosage of medicine at 7 p.m. Previously, last dosages went out at 4 p.m., which Shansky said was too early in the day. Some inmates, Shansky said, were refusing afternoon medications because the pills made them drowsy several hours before lights-out at the jail.
(c)2017 the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.