Legal Aid Society and ACLU Charge Milwaukee County With 13,000 Violations of Court Order to Run Jail Safely and Humanely

Affiliate: ACLU of Wisconsin
September 14, 2004 12:00 am

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MILWAUKEE, WI – The Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee and the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin today announced that they are seeking a contempt order against the Milwaukee County and the Sheriff’s Department for holding people for days at a time in crowded, degrading and dangerous conditions in the county jail’s booking room, in violation of a court-ordered settlement agreement.

“Among the degradations these people had to suffer was the total lack of hygiene and the overpowering body-odor of the other prisoners,” said Larry Dupuis, the ACLU’s state legal director. “It’s also important to remember that most of the people harmed by these conditions had not been convicted of a crime. Many had not even seen a judge yet. They were supposed to be presumed innocent, but they were subjected to conditions that we wouldn’t allow to be inflicted on hardened convicts.”

The motion, filed in Milwaukee County Circuit Court on behalf of the prisoners, said that 13,000 people were held in excess of 30 hours in violation of a court order. The problem of long stays in the booking room had become so common that jail staff had created a “shower list” for people who had been in booking for three days without being able to bathe.

The booking room is where police first bring people who have been arrested and charged with both major and minor crimes to be processed. It is designed to hold people for short times and has no beds, no showers and no privacy. The ACLU and Legal Aid also charged jail officials with concealing the conditions in the booking room by temporarily moving detainees to other parts of the jail just prior to the official population count and then returning them a few hours after the count is completed.

“The human beings subjected to these conditions were treated like cattle,” said Peter Koneazny, the Legal Aid Society’s litigation director. “They describe lying on the concrete floor next to the toilet trying to get some sleep, being packed into small holding cells with 12 or more other prisoners, and having their pleas for medical attention ignored.”

The motion comes in a class action lawsuit filed in 1996 and settled with a consent decree — a court-ordered settlement agreement — in 2001. In the decree, county officials agreed that no one arrested and brought to the jail would be kept in the booking room or without a bed for more than 30 hours. The county also agreed to keep the population in the booking room to 110 people. For monitoring purposes, the county agreed to make an official count of the people held in the booking room just before midnight each night.

The motion asks the court to find the county and the sheriff in contempt and in breach of their consent agreement and to schedule a hearing to determine the appropriate compensation for the victims.

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