Acting sheriff, attorney representing families speak out on deaths, reforms at the Milwaukee County Jail

Acting Milwaukee County Sheriff Richard Schmidt

MILWAUKEE -- Acting Milwaukee County Sheriff Richard Schmidt and families of individuals who have died in the Milwaukee County Jail scheduled separate news conferences Thursday afternoon, Aug. 9 to discuss deaths that occurred in 2016.

A news release from the Milwaukee County Sheriff's Office indicated Sheriff Schmidt would "set the record straight and highlight the transformative changes he has made in the Milwaukee County Jail since Sept. 2017."

"They've tried to paint me in a corner that was run by a previous sheriff. I did not have the authority to change the staffing. As soon as I had the ability to make those changes I made them. There's documented proof of that by the way. The public needs to know that this sheriff cares about every single one of those inmates," said Schmidt.

Attorney James Gende

A separate release indicated Attorney James Gende, who represents families whose loved ones died in the jail would "discuss Acting Sheriff Schmidt's role in the deaths."

"In the event that he wanted changes made, he certainly could have advised his superiors to that extent, and if Sheriff Clarke was unwilling to do it, he could have gone to the county executive. Thankfully we haven't had any recent deaths in custody, but it's a short time period. There's been a consent decree for over two decades regarding the Milwaukee County facility," said Gende.

Gende represents the families of Shadé Swayzer, whose newborn daughter Laliah died after Shadé gave birth in the county jail in July 2016, Kristina Fiebrink, who died in the jail in 2016 after not receiving care for alcohol and heroin withdrawal, Jennifer Jawson, whose unborn child died in December 2016 after guards did not provide Jawson with access to appropriate health care in the county jail, and James Perry, who died in 2010 while being violently restrained by law enforcement in the jail after he suffered seizures, according to Gende's release.

Shade Swayzer

Kristina Fiebrink

James Perry

Maria Hamilton, the mother of Dontre Hamilton, who was shot and killed by former Milwaukee Police Officer Christopher Manney in April of 2014 and Christine Neumann-Ortiz, the executive director of Voces de la Frontera also took part in Gende's press conference.

His release states these jail deaths were "due to negligence and human rights abuses" in the jail, and "the need for reforms."

Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke

According to the release, Schmidt, "who was (former Sheriff David) Clarke's longtime assistant has been in charge of Milwaukee County Jail guards and staff since 2006. Clarke placed him in charge of day-to-day operations in the department in August of 2010. Seven people died in an 18-month period at the jail leading up to December of 2017 while Schmidt was in charge, including two who died after he became acting sheriff following Clarke's Aug. 31, 2017 resignation. Schmidt is a co-defendant in at least four wrongful death civil rights lawsuits, including those brought by the families of Perry and Fiebrink."

It's important to note that the sheriff's office does not handle the mental and medical health program at the jail -- a third party does.

We should also note that some members of the groups that spoke out on Thursday are supporters of one of Schmidt's opponents for sheriff.

Acting Sheriff Schmidt announces results of "operational assessment" of the jail

Acting Milwaukee County Sheriff Richard Schmidt held a news conference and tour of the Milwaukee County Jail back in April for an invited group of elected, county and city officials -- and the media. This, after he received a report from the National Institute of Corrections, which performed an "operational assessment" of the jail at the request of the acting sheriff. He described the event as "an historic occasion," and said he was offering a "transparent transformation and unprecedented look at the Milwaukee County Jail."

Acting Sheriff Schmidt said after taking the acting sheriff position on Sept. 1, 2017, he was "immediately committed to transforming the Milwaukee County Jail into a model facility, and promised the public" he would bring in the NIC and have them review "our entire jail operation." A formal request was sent to the NIC, and then federal funding had to be raised for this analysis.

Between Feb. 28, 2018 and March 2, 2018, two representatives from the NIC came to the Milwaukee County Jail to evaluate the facility.

"The analysis was very thorough, beyond what I had anticipated. They did a phenomenal job. The NIC doesn't pull punches. They document areas that needed correction and what is working from an excellent standpoint," said Acting Sheriff Schmidt.

Acting Sheriff Schmidt said the final report showed some of the challenges at the jail are staffing shortages, leading to excessive overtime, the opioid epidemic and inmates with mental health issues frequently acting out.

Milwaukee County Jail

Acting Milwaukee County Sheriff Richard Schmidt

"I stated publicly that I anticipated the NIC wouldn't find any major issues with the jail that impacted the well-being of inmates, and the report backs up that statement," said Acting Sheriff Schmidt.

He said the NIC report offered 17 recommendations, and 15 of those had been completed and implemented before the final report was released. He said the two not yet accomplished are: 1) a complete policy update and 2) a complete staffing analysis.

Acting Sheriff Schmidt said a review of jail policies is currently underway, and the complete staffing analysis, which will be done in cooperation with the NIC, will involve an outside entity which will come in "to make sure everything is being done exactly up to par with corrections."

Milwaukee County Jail

"Excellence is not an option. Excellence is a mandate. This is a very fragile population that deserves the best care possible," said Acting Sheriff Schmidt of jail operations.

Milwaukee County Jail

He offered the following Milwaukee County Jail statistics:

  • Of the approximately 900 jail inmates, 30 percent have serious mental health issues, and 30 percent have serious medical conditions.
  • Annually, 34,000 inmates come through the Milwaukee County Jail -- many who had been living on the street, many with serious drug and alcohol addictions.
  • 2,489 medical emergencies at the MCJ in 2017.
  • 726 inmates were transported to the hospital in 2017.
  • Zero violations in Dec. of 2017 when a state jail inspector came in to examine the jail completely.

Acting Sheriff Schmidt noted that a new inmate goes through various medical screenings before being admitted and assigned to the proper housing unit inside.

"Every second counts in response to a medical or mental health emergency. My statutory obligation is to properly care for every inmate. Jail is a pre-trial facility. The majority of these inmates are here on new cases. By law, every person here that is a pre-trial inmate is innocent until proven guilty. Every inmate must be treated with respect -- proper humanity, proper nutrition, nourishment and proper medical and mental health care," said Acting Sheriff Schmidt.

Milwaukee County Jail

Milwaukee County Jail

Milwaukee County Jail

Acting Sheriff Schmidt noted that a few months ago, he brought in new "wellness coordinators" -- described as three captains/sworn officers who are highly trained, who were brought in off the street.

"They spent their entire day, every shift going cell-to-cell, looking at vulnerable populations specifically and check on them -- in addition to the constant work by the medical and mental health staff and corrections officers who interact with inmates every day," Acting Sheriff Schmidt said.

He said that's a half-million dollars in resources in order to ensure that "issues are immediately addressed and inmates get the absolute best care possible." He noted that $16 million was spent on inmate healthcare in 2017.

Milwaukee County Jail

Milwaukee County Jail

"Every second counts in a response to a medical or mental health emergency," he said.

The Milwaukee County Jail tour that followed Acting Sheriff Schmidt's news conference began in the jail conference room and included the sally port entrance, pre-book room, medical screening area, booking room, 4D discipline pod, special mental health unit and 6D direct supervision pod.

Elected and county officials attending included:

  • Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele
  • Milwaukee County Board Chairman Theo Lipscomb
  • Milwaukee County Corporation Counsel Margaret Dunn
  • State Public Defender's Office Head Tom Reed
  • Milwaukee Common Council President Ashanti Hamilton
  • Milwaukee County Deputy District Attorney Kent Lovern
  • Milwaukee County Law Enforcement Executive Association President Chief Michael Young

There was no contact with inmates during the tour.