Jail safety advocates say Milwaukee County Sheriff Denita Ball refuses to meaningfully engage with them about how to improve conditions at the Milwaukee County Jail, where four people have died since June.
The first of these deaths was Brieon Green, who died in June at the age of 21.
His death spurred the formation of the Justice for Brieon Green Coalition, which has made several demands on Ball throughout the past nine months, including the opportunity to tour the jail, a town hall with Ball, an independent investigation into the deaths and the posting of standard operating procedures for the jail on the sheriff’s website.
Since Green’s death, 20-year-old Cilivea Thyrion died in December; 49-year-old Octaviano Juarez-Corro died in January; and 37-year-old Terrance Mack died on March 16.
The Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office said three of the four cases are under official investigation by the Waukesha County Sheriff’s Department. The fourth case is under “internal review” by the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office, which declined to comment on specifics of the cases.
Coalition issues demands
The ultimate aim of the coalition is for the deaths to stop.
The coalition met with Ball in January, shortly after she was sworn in, Omar Flores, one of the coalition’s organizers, said.
During this meeting, Ball agreed to several initial demands, including her participation in a town hall and the opportunity to tour the jail, Flores said.
However, Ball has failed to honor the in-person commitment, according to both Flores and Alan Chavoya, the outreach chair of the Milwaukee Alliance Against Racism & Political Repression, or MAARPR, the group that helps organize the coalition.
Chavoya also said the coalition has emailed Ball roughly five times and called her office multiple times and she has not responded.
“Just give us an understanding of what’s going on in there that is leading to so many deaths,” Chavoya said.
The coalition helped organize a rally on March 21 outside the Milwaukee County Safety Building, part of the complex of buildings that includes the jail.
“We know there’s this myth, right, that everyone who’s locked up in there (the county jail) deserves it,” Chavoya said during the rally. “And I think that’s why the sheriff thinks she can get away with it – because it’s a jail and people are not going to care.”
“But we care,” he said. “What’s going on inside that county jail?”
The coalition also includes family members of Green; Students for a Democratic Society-Milwaukee; and the Young Workers Committee.
County leaders press for answers
County officials also have expressed concern over the alleged lack of urgency by the Sheriff’s Office in addressing concerns.
In a joint statement on March 21, following Mack’s death, county Supervisors Felesia Martin and Ryan Clancy called for an audit of the deaths of people while in jail, including an examination of the jail’s mental health and suicide protocol.
“We stand with community demands for both transparency and footage to be released,” said Clancy, who is also chair of the Judiciary, Law Enforcement and General Services Committee. “As with the last three, I expect that neither will be forthcoming.”
By email, James Burnett, director of public affairs and community engagement with the Sheriff’s Office, saidthe investigation into Mack’s death is active and “there will be no further comment from the Office of the Sheriff about it at this time, beyond condolences for his family and other loved ones.”
“The deaths of Cilivea Thyrion and Octaviano Juarez-Corro also remain under investigation, as well,” Burnett said. “Both of these investigations as well as that into Mr. Mack’s death are being conducted by the Waukesha County Sheriff’s Department.”
Although Green’s death was officially ruled a suicide, Burnett said “an internal review of it is still underway.”
During an event on Wednesday, hosted by the Milwaukee Press Club, Ball said she still plans to participate in a town hall but did not provide a timeline as to when.
“When I made that promise, I didn’t mean I was going to do it right then and there,” she said.
Ball also said her office does plan to put the standard operating procedures for the jail on the sheriff’s website but did not provide a timeline as to when. For those who want access to a standard operating procedure that is not on the site, Ball suggested submitting an open records request.
Mental health and incarcerated people
The conditions in the jail affecting those with mental health problems have emerged as an issue for those advocating for improved safety — problems Ball emphasized during her campaign.
Ball’s campaign website still lists “supporting mental health” as one of her top priorities, stating, “Milwaukee County needs to invest more into mental health services, community-based approaches and mental health intervention programs. We need to ensure deputies are trained in recognizing and responding to mental health crises and especially how to de-escalate those situations.”
The official investigation into Green’s death ruled it a suicide, but footage from the jail depict “gross negligence” and “complete indifference to human life” by officers at the jail, said B’Ivory LaMarr, one of the lawyers for the Green family, during a news conference in December after viewing footage.
“Brieon Green literally had a phone cord strangling himself … while a sheriff’s officer goes directly past the cell while he was supposed to be conducting a cell check,” LaMarr said.
“The purpose of the cell check,” he added, “is to … check on the well-being of the inmate, and that completely was not done.”
Thyrion, who died in December, was on suicide watch when she died by choking on an adult-sized diaper provided to her by officers at the jail, according to LaMarr, who is also the lawyer for Thyrion’s family, during a separate news conference.
Ronald Schroeder, who is currently in custody at the jail for two felony charges, said, “Certain individuals are just not safe here. And that is why they are committing suicide.” Schroeder spoke to NNS by phone and was contacted at the suggestion of an advocacy group, Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee-Wisconsin.
Some of the factors that increase risk for those with mental health conditions, Schroeder said he’s observed, include people being forced to stay in their cells for long periods as well as virtually no access to sunlight and fresh air.
Schroeder also said he is alarmed by the difficulty of accessing needed medications.
“There are a large number of occupants in the jail that suffer from severe mental illness, including schizophrenia,” Schroeder said. “After talking with many of them, I have learned that many were prescribed and taking psychotropic medications in the community, or the prison system, before they arrived here. But they are not given their psychotropic meds here. When they do have an episode, the reaction is purely putative and not clinical.”
The Sheriff’s Office did not respond to requests for comment about the medication policy for those with mental health conditions. But during the Milwaukee Press Club event, Ball said “it definitely used to be the case” occupants were restricted to their cells for long periods of time, especially at the peak of the staffing crisis around the early months of 2022.
However, Ball said, those in jail have not been locked up for that amount of time “in months” and are currently permitted to be out of their cells from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Ball also said her office is enacting additional changes to better address the mental health needs of those who are incarcerated.
A new mental health counselor will “work in conjunction with our health and mental health providers. This is just an extra layer that we hope will help.”
The Sheriff’s Office also is adding the role of an occupant safety and compliance staff member who will review footage from the jail and serve as “a second set of eyes to make sure we’re doing what we’re supposed to being,” Ball said. The new staff member will be responsible for helping to ensure officers are “doing inspections right.”
Ball’s office also is increasing oversight of the jail, including more unannounced inspections by her, other executive staff members and the Wisconsin Department of Corrections.
Meanwhile, the coalition plans to continue to put pressure on Ball.
“I think she is seeing that a lot of people are asking questions, and they’re demanding answers,” Chavoya said. “And so, we would love for her to give us those answers.”
For more information
Those interested in updates concerning actions of the coalition can go to the Facebook page for MAARPR.
Jail health care provides a target rich environment for critics and reformers. Because of turnover and instability, it is an even more difficult environment than prison health, which, at least, has a stable, sentenced population. But, the two share on basic reality: once incarcerated or detained, an individual loses all freedom of choice for his or her health care.
Two other realities: many of those detained have serious medical, mental health, and – often ignored – severe dental problems; and the process of detention breeds further turmoil. Sadly, the other reality is that the jail environment breeds cynicism among both uniformed and civilian staff, which makes it easy to miss or ignore these conditions.
So, rather than finger pointing, here are some thoughts about what can work to meet a basic obligation to fellow humans, who, once again, whatever they may have done or not done, have no alternatives.
Number One, an effective medical and mental health admissions screening process is a critical step. And, once screened, if needed, there has to be a pathway to adequate care provided by trained professionals.
That leads to the big Number Two: based on long experience, the only way to provide that adequate care is through a contractual/affiliation agreement with a reputable teaching hospital, rather than care being delivered by permanent jail staff. This is a big step, but the only way to link that “front-end” screening, outpatient care, and, when needed, critical medical and mental health care at an acceptable level of quality in a secure unit of the hospital.
Won’t it cost real money? Yes, it’s worth it. It will not only save lives, it can also change them over the longer term. And, an additional benefit is that it improves the lives of the uniformed staff as well. And, most important: none of the tinkering internal fixes will work over the long term.