Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility

This article is a conversation and the following day reflections concerning a local activist effort to change the conditions in the Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility. I was arguing the changes were insignificant, and the supplemental strategies of demonstration and promotion were inconsequential since any change would come through law which is persuaded neither by popularity, nor civil disobedience.

I was attending a gathering by a friend named Shawn to watch game 3 of the Denver Nuggets and Portland Trail Blazers playoff series (2019) .  Shawn mentioned an activist who I had been critical of on social media a few years back. There was a man I had a conversation with who I met briefly a few years ago who told me he was involved in the subject that this activist was involved in. He came to his defense and the defense of the cause when I became instantly critical of it.

He presented the issue as if it related to country inmates being housed in MSDF which isn’t true, but I thought this was what we were arguing about in the beginning.  Having been in both facilities, albeit not for some time, the environment was nearly identical.  Day room with a TV, tables, and chairs.  MSDF had a separate room with a ping-pong table, pull up bar, and I think there was a stair stepper but I may be mistaken, I was there in 2002.  The Milwaukee Criminal Justice Facility, better known as the county jail, didn’t have an exercise room, but did have basketball courts that were not accessible during all day room periods.  The schedule was the same, standing count, breakfast, lock in, day room, lunch, lock in, day room, lock in, dinner lock in, day room, lock in.  To the best of my recollection that is essentially the schedule at both facilities.  The difference comes down to whether you want to play basketball sometimes, or whether you want to play ping pong and do pull ups at every day room.  Scooba preferred the county and I preferred MSDF, mainly because in my experience the basketball courts in the county were frequently shut down and there were periods where the county jail imposed rules that prevented competitive play. 

Eventually he got to the main point which is inmate rights being violated at the Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility.  MSDF houses inmates on parole holds and inmates being revoked who have less than 6 months left on their sentences.  He mentioned MSDF inmates do not have contact visits as they do in other state facilities, or proper recreational opportunities.  The reason the facility does not offer these accommodations, is due to the duration with which these inmates are housed there. Again, I may be wrong in regard to policy, but when I was there, no one was being staffed there on revocation for longer than a year, and usually if you had 6 months or more you went to DCI.  The reason why state facilities have contact visits and must maintain certain standards in regard to access to recreation, is because people are sentenced to state facilities for decades and life. MSDF is a temporary facility so the requirement of these opportunities is less necessary. The same as the county jail is temporary and operates under processes that are nearly identical to MSDF as it relates to conditions. I didn’t make this point at the time having been side tracked by the diversionary introduction, and partially due to the surprise of finding myself in a serious conversation in that setting.  More importantly, I was unfamiliar with the subject I was debating, relying on the information being provided to form my argument.  I was critical because in my experience activists are inauthentic and use social justices causes more for the social opportunities the cause presents and are less concerned about achieving progress that will improve people’s quality of life.  

I asked what they accomplished, and there were two things that were not completely meaningless, one more than the other. The first prevented an inmate from receiving 360 days in segregation.  The maximum time you can spend in segregation for one ticket was 8 days adjustment and 360 days program.  A second missed point is although a person can no longer receive 360 days in the hole on one ticket according to the people present, it doesn’t mean people cannot be held in segregation for more than 360 days.  As with any activist assertion, I doubt the group did more than attach itself to an existing campaign by demonstrating for it, after the legal battle had already begun, and then used the success of the legal victory to assert they contributed. 

I was in segregation for about 7 months in the Racine Youthful Offenders Correctional Facility in 2001. At the time, you could be released from segregation after serving half the time on your ticket. My original ticket for fighting was 4 days of adjustment time and 120 days program time. While I was in segregation, I received a picture from a friend showing people in a group. I didn’t actually receive the picture but I received a write up for the picture being sent to me for some violation related to gang activity. This meant I wasn’t going to get my half time on my original ticket, and I received an additional 4 days of adjustment and 60 days program time.

Adjustment time meant you didn’t get anything in your cell, whereas program time you could have books, pens, and papers and there was the potential to earn additional items.  I may have earned my radio for a few weeks at one point but most of the time I was on the first level. 

While I was in segregation I had an incident with a correctional officer. Threats, disobeying orders, and disrespect to staff.  I had been in the hole for probably 3 months or more by that time and the correctional officer came to get me for my shower.  He wanted to do the visual search before he took me out of my cell for my shower.  Go through the motions to show him I don’t have anything on me.  I’d been in the hole for probably 3 months, I’ve had no opportunities to have anything on me, and I didn’t feel like playing that game that day.  I’m not sure how it resolved we probably reached some compromise.  On the way back from my shower, as he walked me down the hall on a tether in restraints, we exchanged words and I told him I should spit on him for playing with me.  19 years old, having to that point served roughly 3 years in and out different adjudicative facilities since age 14, having been in the hole by that time for about 3 months straight, the longest I’d been in segregation, I didn’t want to play the game that day. 

The incident provided the opportunity for a change of scenery.  When I initially went to the hole I went to Main Seg, and the other inmate went to South Seg.  There were two housing buildings with two wings.  The South building and the North building, and each had a wing named lake or memorial.  They must have required more segregation space than main segregation afforded them because South Seg was in the same building as the general population housing, except you didn’t leave the cell except to shower, and scheduled recreation which meant going from your cell to a cage outside.  In Main Seg it was a cage where you could sit outside because there was no sunlight in Main Seg.  Main Seg was a wall of cells.  I don’t remember how high because I was on the first level, but I think there were more than two.  Main Seg cells were transparent except for the door, it was large windows presumably hard plastic.  Inmates were potentially visible to staff at all times.  The details become relevant as we proceed.    

I received 5 days of adjustment time and 150 days program time and I was transferred from South Seg back to Main Seg.  I was also given additional restrictions, two-man escort, back of cell lower trap, no clothes, and spit mask among probably others I cannot recall. The person I was debating with mentioned he was given the same restrictions and chose not to eat.

The worst part was being naked and having to go to the back of the cell, face the wall, kneel down and cross your legs as one CO watched you, and the other CO pushed your tray through the lower trap. The person I was talking to said he was in the same situation, whether he was or not I don’t know.  He told me he refused and went on hunger strike for 10 days. I on the other hand couldn’t see the logic in me being naked in a cell and hungry so I went through the degrading process to eat. I think the restrictions only lasted a week so the only goals his hunger strike accomplished was hunger and not having to participate in the process of getting his tray.

The point is, I was in segregation longer than a person who would be given a 360-day ticket who was released on his half time, and I began with 120 days. What is the significance of not being able to be given 360 days in segregation if you can still be in segregation for over 360 days? There are still people who are in segregation for longer than 360 days. If you’re deemed a threat to yourself, others, or order because you continue to receive violations, you’re not sent back to the general population simply because you’ve been in segregation for 360 days.  Doing away with the 360-day ticket doesn’t not change much.

What was significant and I don’t know the role his organizational affiliates played in this change, was time in the hole for fighting was significantly reduced. Scooba said his tickets for fighting were 30 days or less. 

There were two points I was trying to make and the first I mentioned in part at the time of the debate. The first was that changes in the living conditions of inmates does not come through changing public opinion and protesting against the issue. Change comes through legal processes.  

He asked me “what are you doing?” I provided a brief description of Centers for Economic Planning but I was sidetracked before I could make the point related to it. The point was, it is more important to direct energy towards correcting the causes of people becoming incarcerated than it is to invest time and energy into conditions that have only the most minimal impact on an inmate’s life.  If successful, the difference in the quality of life for an inmate between MSDF, and whatever would replace it, is not significant and could be potentially worse, while allowing for contact visits and outdoor recreation.  Not to mention the enormous waste of money to build another facility, which reduces the funds available for social spending, which has an impact on opportunity and crime.  Straining the gnat to swallow the camel.

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