Forget Sheriff David Clarke’s brush with plagiarism.
The Milwaukee County sheriff, who claimed last week he had been offered a senior position at the Department of Homeland Security (as yet unconfirmed by the White House), reportedly failed to attribute sources he used in a thesis written to complete a master’s degree in security studies at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. (Clarke has denied the allegations.)
Maybe his reported failure to use quotation marks demonstrates inability or unwillingness to play by the rules, but there have been much, much bigger demonstrations of Clarke’s inability to lead a functioning organization.
That four people died in his Milwaukee County Jail over a several-month span has been widely reported. An inquest jury found that probably cause of a crime exists in the death of one of the dead, Terrill Thomas, who died of dehydration after he was deprived of water and a mattress for seven straight days.
Editor’s Note: Clarke attracted national attention when he lashed out at Black Lives Matter during a speech at the Republican National Convention in July, warning of a “collapse of social order,” and calling then-candidate Donald Trump the “steadfast leader our nation needs.”
But Clarke’s disdain for jail inmates was demonstrated long before Thomas or any of the four had the misfortune to be locked up in his care. His absolute disregard for his duty to provide decent and humane treatment was shown more than a decade ago, in 2006, when Milwaukee County was found in contempt of court for holding thousands of inmates in a jail booking area for more than 30 hours each in violation of an earlier consent decree.
“The sheer number of violations, 16,662, is staggering,” Circuit Court Judge Claire Fiorenza wrote in her decision, adding: “Although Milwaukee County contends that it was unaware of the extent of the problem, it is beyond this Court’s comprehension how over 16,000 violations of the consent decree could go undetected.”
There were violations before March 2002, when Clarke was appointed sheriff, but numbers soared after he was sworn in and remained high until the ACLU and Legal Aid brought the contempt motion, records show.
While there were 18 violations in December 2001 and 20 in January 2002, for example, there were 518 in December 2002 and 830 in January 2003.
Records in the 2006 case show that inmates were denied medication, decent food, and even the ability to lie down.
Jail conditions were awful, according to affidavits from former inmates. Important medications were withheld from inmates, silverfish crawled on the floors and communal toilets were filthy with urine and feces.
Inmates were jammed eight to thirteen to a cell for shifts of eight hours or more, according to the filings. They were not allowed to stand or lie down for long periods.
“It was difficult to sleep because of the crowding, the smells, the cold and the fact that the lights were on at all times,” an inmate said in an affidavit. “The cells were also infested with bugs that looked like little, white centipedes.”
And another: “The mental stress of being there was made worse because I was not able to make any contact with my wife to let her know where I was. I always thought … that I was entitled to one free phone call. I never got a phone call.”
- “I observed a young kid having what I would call a breakdown. He was crying and sobbing. He got no assistance of attention from the staff.”
- “I was not allowed to get my Oxycontin medication at the correct time (with or after meals) while in the booking room.”
- “The floor was wet with water and saliva from people spitting and spilling while trying to drink and from urine that sprayed outside the toilet. The toilet itself was disgusting. There was a time when an inmate threw up into the toilet, but some of the vomit missed the toilet. The smell was terrible.”
- “We had no toilet paper when we had to go to the bathroom. …Our cell was cleaned only once during the three days, and one roll of toilet paper was left in our cell (for 13 or 14 women). That was the only time we had any toilet paper.”
- “Two women in my holding cell had their menstrual periods, but they could not get any tampons or sanitary pads. They had blood showing through their pants, and they left spots of blood on the ground when they sat down.”
- “There were no cups and you had (to) fill up the palms of your hands to take a drink. The sinks were unsanitary.”
- “Even though I was pregnant, I received no milk or vitamins. One nurse saw that my health was deteriorating and did sneak me some milk once in the nurses’ station. No doors were allowed to be closed, but the nurse closed the door for about 30 seconds and told me to drink it quickly in order to not gt caught by the guards.”
- A drunk inmate “staggered to the toilet area and without bending down or kneeling by the toilet, he held onto the partition and vomited at the toilet, mostly missing the toilet and getting vomit all over the toilet and the floor. … Myself and the others immediately turned on the ‘emergency’ light to call the guard, but as was typical, the light was ignored. … the drunk man had a bowel movement in his pants. The smell was unbelievable.”
Judge Fiorenza in the end declined to levy monetary damages. That’s too bad, in a way.
Maybe if the county’s pocketbook had been hurt, and not just its easily ignored, largely poor and minority jail inmates, the sorry tale would have gotten more attention and Clarke wouldn’t be in line for his (supposed) big promotion now.
The sheriff still hasn’t fixed his jail. And he doesn’t seem to particularly care.
Consider his deposition testimony in a pending lawsuit filed against the sheriff and Milwaukee County by a former female jail inmate who was allegedly repeatedly sexually assaulted by a jail corrections officer. (The CO denied it, but eventually pleaded guilty to felony misconduct in office.)
Clarke testified in a deposition that he did not even know whether 20 or more than 200 Sheriff’s Department employees were referred in a year to the District Attorney’s office for possible criminal wrongdoing.
He did acknowledge, however, that having 200 employees referred to the DA would be a problem because “it would wipe out a good portion of my force.”
That case is scheduled to go to trial next month. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the county does not want Clarke to testify.
Clarke’s history of neglect and mismanagement makes the recent jailhouse deaths less surprising than they otherwise might be. That same history makes it very hard to understand why even the Trump administration would take a risk with a man like him. The country certainly deserves better.
Gretchen Schuldt is executive director of the Wisconsin Justice Initiative, which works to improve the quality of justice in Wisconsin by educating the public about legal issues and encouraging civic engagement in and debate about the judicial system and its operation. She welcomes readers’ comments.