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Monday, August 13, 2007

Playing the Blame Game: The Milwaukee County Edition

by capper

On August 4th, Michael Verville, an inmate at the Milwaukee County House of Correction, escaped. Fortunately, he was caught the next day. This wasn't a spur of the moment, opportunistic event. It was thought out and took weeks to implement. Now, Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker has presented a plan to curtail further escape attempts, including more razor wire, more cameras, more lighting and bricking up windows. But he does not address one of the major reasons that this escape was possible, burnt out staff members.

Having had worked at HOC for a number of years, I feel that I have some insight on what happened. Basically the House is understaffed, and the workers are burning out by having to do constant overtime. This was talked about in an article in MSJ back on June 30th.

Many of the officers at the HOC use the job as a stepping stone for a position with the Sheriff's Department (oops, Sheriff's Office now) or with a municipal police department. Many officers don't have what it takes to work there and leave on their own or are fired. This means a high rate of turnover already exists. Adding to the problems is Scott Walker's perennial budget cuts in the disguise of tax freezes, and this lowers the number or positions available, but not necessarily the number needed. Furthermore, in an effort to cut his budget, Sheriff David Clarke changed the staffing at the Milwaukee County Jail from deputies to correction officers, causing a small exodus of people from HOC to the jail.

So now you have officers that are working 12 to 16 hours a day, six to seven days a week, week in and week out. Officers are getting so burnt out that they are purposely disrespecting superior officers, or violating other policies, just so they can get suspended and have a day off. (This also adds to the shortage of officers, and causes even more forced overtime for the others.)

When you have people working these many hours, without a day off or even enough time to do more than catch five hours a sleep before going back to work on a daily basis, mistakes are going to happen. People aren't as alert or as careful as they should be, especially in a prison setting.

The chronic fatigue, the inability for officers to see their families, and the increasing risk of injury has caused an all time low in morale. This is exasperated when they have people threatening their job security with talk of privatization.

SIDE NOTE: HOC Superintendent Ronald Malone indicated that they are having a hard time recruiting people (a friend that still works there told me that the last training class had four people, as opposed to the usual 12 to 15). Does this surprise anyone? Who would want to work under these conditions?

To further add insult to injury, Walker is already preparing to point his finger at the dastardly, lazy, incompetent county workers, without acknowledging the simple fact that it was his policy that created the conditions to allow the escape to happen in the first place. He has already made a statement today showing that he plans to blame the officers involved, when he said, "Did those staffers follow the procedures put in place and for those who didn't and we're not pre-judging until the reports are done, but for those individuals the discipline will be swift and direct."

Not to be outdone, Sheriff Clarke wrote a letter to the county board criticizing HOC and its staff. The article reads:

Milwaukee Sheriff David Clarke is criticizing the House of Correction. In a letter to the County Board President, he blames complacency and negligence of the workers. He also criticizes managers who set the tone.
In the same letter, Clarke talks about touring the H.O.C. just two days after the escape. "People will usually recommit and rededicate themselves after an incident like Saturday's escape; one can usually fell the sense of urgency in the air. Unfortunately, I did not experience any sense of urgency in the atmosphere at the H.O.C." he wrote.

The funny thing about Clarke's criticism, is that, as Ken Mobile at Mobile's Take points out, he is actually blaming himself.

On the bright side, at least one county supervisor, Mark Borkowski, gets it. He has repeatedly stepped up and pointed out the overtime crisis at HOC and that unless something is done to get officers some relief, it will probably only get worse.

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