- - Friday, December 23, 2016

MADISON, Wis. — While the mainstream media has concentrated its coverage on inmate deaths at the Milwaukee County Jail run by Sheriff David Clarke, there hasn’t been the same laser-like focus on Wisconsin’s other county jails — where inmate deaths and death rates are as high or higher.

Milwaukee County’s outspoken conservative sheriff believes the disparate treatment has everything to do with politics and a Milwaukee-area media that loves to throw public relations punches at him.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has published several stories and opinion pieces on the four deaths that occurred over six months at the Milwaukee County Jail, including three inmates and a stillborn baby.

Forty miles to the south of Milwaukee County, in smaller Kenosha County, there have been nine inmate suicides over the past four years at the two Sheriff’s Department-run jails, a statistic confirmed Wednesday by Kenosha County Sheriff David Beth. This year, Kenosha County’s jails recorded three inmate deaths, two of them suicides, according to data from the Wisconsin Department of Corrections.

Kenosha County’s jail population as of Wednesday was at about 830 inmates, including some 200 federal prisoners. The Milwaukee County Jail, overseen by the sheriff, and the Milwaukee County House of Corrections combine to house nearly three times more inmates.

There was extensive coverage of the Nov. 2 suicide of Lucia Hernandez-Alvarez, but that’s mainly because she was accused of killing her two children. In April, Kenosha’s daily newspaper published a detailed story on the strain mentally ill inmates have put on jail staff.

Lt. Robert J. Croeker, who at the time served as Kenosha County Sheriff’s Department Facility administrator, told the Kenosha News that county jails continue to be the emergency rooms of the criminal justice system, especially pre-trial facilities.

“The largest mental health facilities nationwide are the local county jails,” he told the newspaper.

No finger-pointing, no accusations. Just a story explaining the growing challenges county jails face dealing with increasingly troubled inmates.

There was very little of that kind of context in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s breathless reporting of the deaths at the Milwaukee County Jail and its follow-up stories on Milwaukee County Board members — Sheriff Clarke’s liberal political enemies — demanding an investigation.

What has been buried in the coverage is the fact that the three inmates who died at the Milwaukee County Jail this year were some very unhealthy people dealing with the ramifications of drug abuse and serious physical illnesses, according to autopsies obtained by Wisconsin Watchdog.

There are more questions surrounding an incident in which an inmate gave birth to a stillborn baby “without any jail or medical personnel noticing she was in labor.”

“Two inmates suffered from severe cardiac disease, which became critical when coupled with the effects of hardcore drug usage prior to their incarceration, with their extensive drug histories independently noted in their death investigations,” Sheriff Clarke said.

Statewide this year, there have been 20 inmate deaths in Wisconsin’s jails, nine of those suicides, according to Department of Corrections statistics.

The smaller Brown County Jail in Green Bay has experienced three inmate deaths over the past two years; two were this year, both of those suicides. Outagamie County’s corrections facility in Appleton also has recorded three deaths over the period.

Dane and Waukesha county jails each have recorded three deaths since 2015. Little Monroe County, with an average inmate population of 111, documented two deaths over the period.

But those county jails are not led by conservative, outspoken sheriffs like Clarke, who has been highly critical of the mainstream media, liberal politicians, and a nationally prominent supporter of President-elect Donald Trump.

“This has everything to do with politics and my support of Donald Trump,” he told Wisconsin Watchdog. “These people are invested in bringing me down.”

Sheriff Beth told Wisconsin Watchdog that his Kenosha County jail is dealing with the same problems found in Milwaukee and just about every jail in the country. He said it is nearly impossible to prevent all suicides inside jail walls. Hernandez-Alvarez, for instance, used a plastic commissary bag and a blanket to suffocate herself. He said the jail has had people hang themselves with bed sheets while kneeling.

“The only way to stop them is to put everyone in a padded room and take all of their clothing away, but they’d probably still figure out a way to do it,” Sheriff Beth said.

• Watchdog.org is a project of the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the principles of transparency, accountability, and fiscal responsibility.

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