Milwaukee County Jail in-person visitation study gets boost, goes to County Board

Plans to allow in-person visitation at the Milwaukee County Jail after more than two decades without it have gotten a boost from a Milwaukee County committee.

The Finance Committee unanimously voted to recommend spending $151,000 to study the feasibility of restoring in-person visitation, including operational and fiscal estimates.

“This is a project that just looks at what gives us the ability to reopen visitation within the jail to be able to have families reconnect with people in jail, and not any other bells and whistles that go beyond that,” Supervisor Shawn Rolland, who authored the resolution, told committee members. “We don’t need gold-plated toilets or anything like that. We’re just trying to see what would it take to get in-person visitation open.”

The Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors will vote on the recommendation Thursday. If approved, Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley will have to OK it.

“Conditions in the jail have been in the news a lot in the last several weeks,” Rolland said. “So this will hopefully put us on a path to improving conditions.”

In addition to the lack of in-person visitation:

  • The jail also has had a spate of in-custody deaths since 2020, including the suicides of 21-year-old Brieon Green, who strangled himself with a phone cord while in booking in June 2022, and 20-year-old Cilivea Thyrion, who choked to death on an adult diaper while housed in a special needs pod in December 2022. In May, the county board authorized a review into the jail’s policies, procedures and practices for suicide prevention, mental and physical health assessments, and training and staffing. The review ultimately offered some recommendations to improve monitoring individuals on suicide watch.

  • Those housed in the jail and criminal justice advocates alike also have previously raised concerns about the cost to make phone calls. In February 2022, a report showed that families have paid $5.1 million per year for calls with loved ones in the jail.

In-person visitation sessions held on the mezzanine level of the jail were ended by then-Sheriff David A. Clarke Jr. after a man was able to escape from the jail during a December 2001 visitation and because of staffing shortages.

Since 2003, the jail has barred all cost-free in-person visitation, moving toward free on-site video visitation. About a decade later, visitors could receive paid, off-site phone and video calls from those housed at the jail.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the on-site video visitation was closed in mid-March 2020 and to this day remains closed.

In 2022, the county board asked the then-House of Correction — renamed the Community Reintegration Center — and the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office to complete a study on returning in-person visitation at the CRC and the County Jail.

The scope of repairs needed would include communication and structural upgrades, enhanced security, painting, flooring and drop-ceiling replacement, according to reports shared by the Sheriff’s Office to the county board in August 2022.

The Sheriff’s Office outlined two major costs for the restoration: TLC Engineering Solutions Inc. estimated $15,000 to $25,000 for electrical engineering and technology consulting to assist in conducting a feasibility analysis for the project, and $3 million to $7 million for its implementation.

Supervisor Ryan Clancy, who co-sponsored the resolution, has routinely called for the restoration of in-person visitation, improving conditions at the jail and more transparency from the Sheriff’s Office about in-custody deaths.

“All the data says that, when we sever somebody from their community, when we ban visitation — as the jail has now for over two decades — that there are terrible consequences,” Clancy said. “I think we’re seeing some of that in suicide rates and other deaths in custody in jail, and this is something that we should have done years ago.”

Contact Vanessa Swales at 414-308-5881 or [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @Vanessa_Swales.

This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Milwaukee County Jail in-person visitation study gets boost

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