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 country’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,” says 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 meetings 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 superintendant 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.” ◆
Tune in to WUWM’s “Lake Effect” May 15 at 10 a.m. to hear more about the story.