When the Milwaukee County Jail opened its doors in 1993, the design was only supposed to hold 798 people. Three years later, when an inmate named Milton J. Christensen filed a complaint about poor conditions, the jail held 1304 people. While no one thinks that being in jail should be like staying at the Hilton, the high overcrowding was a core part of pretty inhumane living conditions. According to the complaint:
"As a result of the high population of inmates, two inmates are confined to cells built for one. The second inmate is routinely forced to sleep on a mattress on the floor because each cell is equipped with only one bed. Because the mattress on the floor is so close to the toilet, the toilet "sweats" and water spills or urine splashes from the toilet onto the floor and gets the mattresses and bedding wet. For most inmates, there are no pillows for persons sleeping on the floor and there is only one blanket even when it is cold in the jail."
Discoveries by lawyers researching the case found that the jail would have been closer to the original design if people with convictions could be sent to state prisons, those with probation violations could have alternative sentencing options and still others who were simply awaiting sentencing could have their final time in court.
Agreement to change jail conditions
After Christensen's complaint was filed, some progress was made: in 2001, Milwaukee County Circuit Court settled on an agreement for the County to correct overcrowding and other unconstitutional conditions (including dealing with inmates with communicable diseases and a lack of mental or physical medical treatment) at the jail. Among other provisions, the consent decree imposed a limit of 30 hours on how long inmates could be held in the booking area of the jail, an area designed for very short-term detention until inmates could be assigned to longer-term quarters with beds and showers.
Unfortunately, between 2001 and 2004, the County violated this provision of the decree more than 16,000 times. According to affidavits filed in the case, inmates were held for days at a time in conditions that the Circuit Court later described as
“unacceptable, if not appalling,” including “overly crowded conditions, inmates who were forced to sit or sleep on the floor next to urinals, inmates who had to sit up for hours and hours, lack of hygiene, unsanitary conditions, inmates who were not given pillows or blankets to sleep on, cells that were infested with bugs, cold temperatures, bodily fluids on the floor and bad odors.”
Back to court. The County agreed to stop violating the agreement, but for those 16,000+ people who shouldn't have been subject to the poor conditions, their harm needed a remedy. An attempt to get compensatory damages awarded was what failed in the Supreme Court's decision today.
Legislative solution needed to demand humane jail conditions
Patrick Patterson, one of the lawyers for the plaintiff class, stated, “We are disappointed in the Supreme Court’s decision. While it is significant that Milwaukee County was found to be in contempt of court for intentionally and systematically warehousing and mistreating thousands of people in direct violation of a valid court order, those people are now left without a remedy. We hope that future legislative action or judicial decisions will restore the courts’ authority to provide a remedy to the victims of parties who willfully violate court orders.”
For those who want to geek out on the full court decision, you can read it on the Wisconsin Courts website. Don't let the legaleese scare you - it's a good story. For the press release from the ACLU and Legal Aid, download the PDF on Wispolitics.