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Following inmate deaths, Milwaukee County approves outside audit of jail

Audit likely to investigate suicide prevention efforts at the jail

Milwaukee County Jail
Gretchen Brown/WPR

Milwaukee County is hiring an independent auditor to study operations at the downtown jail after the deaths of six incarcerated people over 14 months led to protests about conditions in the facility.

Community groups have for years been calling for a review of the conditions at Milwaukee County Jail, which houses around 900 people who are newly arrested, awaiting trial or awaiting sentencing or transfer.

Now, an outside agency will examine the “operations, policies and procedures” at the jail, according to a recent resolution.

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From June 2022 to August 2023, six people died while in custody at the jail, either of natural causes or by suicide. Twenty-seven inmates were also charged with disorderly conduct last year after they allegedly barricaded themselves inside a library in August in protest of conditions at the jail.

“The audit has been a long time coming,” Milwaukee County Supervisor Ryan Clancy said.

Last year, the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors voted to include $250,000 in the 2024  budget to pay for an audit. That move was supported by Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley, Milwaukee County Board Chair Marcelia Nicholson and Milwaukee County Sheriff Denita Ball. 

On Feb. 1, the county board approved a resolution to start searching for an outside auditor. 

In a statement, Crowley said he hopes the audit and its findings will lead to “enhanced safety and security at the jail.” 

“Improving the health and safety conditions at the Milwaukee County Jail is a priority that requires examining solutions from all ends,” Crowley said.

In August, the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s office completed a report following the recent deaths at the facility. Clancy said that review, which revealed a staffing shortage at the jail, didn’t answer enough questions.

“We really wanted an independent review … so that we can have people who are used to looking at other sheriff’s departments, other jails across the country, who can do some comparison,” Clancy said about the audit. 

Ball said the sheriff’s office will cooperate with the audit. She said the sheriff’s office and the board “share a desire to always improve the safety and efficiency of the Milwaukee County Jail.”

Milwaukee County Supervisor Shawn Rolland wants the audit to examine whether the jail is aligned with “best practices.” 

“In recent years, there have been people who have either gotten injured or worse in our facility (jail),” Rolland said. “And the buck stops with us. We have to make sure that we’re keeping people safe in our facilities.” 

Jennifer Folliard, the county director of audits, said the outside audit will likely include records reviews, interviews with staff and leadership at the jail, interviews with justice system leaders and conversations with inmates.

“The goal is to have recommendations resulting from this work which may lead to a reduction in the number of in-custody deaths,” Folliard said during a January committee of the whole meeting. 

The audit could also include investigating suicide prevention efforts, mental health resources and treatment at the jail, and adding new policies and procedures. 

Folliard said an audit will likely include a report with several recommendations. 

“I think it’s important for any evaluation to review what’s currently in place to see if they’re functioning as expected and whether there are any opportunities to enhance those review layers,” she said. 

Milwaukee County Supervisor Kathleen Vincent said she wants to make sure people housed at the jail have mental health resources available.

“I definitely would love to see that we don’t ever have any death while in our care,” Vincent said. “We just have to strive for better and make sure that when a situation occurs, that we address it, and hope that we can make it so that it never happens.” 

Audit will begin after contract is approved

The county board will need to approve any new contract when an outside auditor is selected. It’s not clear how long the selection process could take, but Folliard estimated the audit could take around six months to complete when a contract is completed.

About 210 correctional officers and sergeants are currently employed at the jail, according to a spokesperson. The jail is budgeted for 252 correctional officers and sergeants, according to the August report.

Jails and prisons around Wisconsin have been struggling with staffing shortages. The Milwaukee County Board increased wages for jail staff in 2024, Rolland said. 

“So we’re hopeful that … on the staffing side, we’ll be able to see some significant recruiting and retention happening in the facilities as a result of that,” Rolland said.

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