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Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2008

Taking Liberties

Dogs and Men

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It’s hard to know which is worse—to be accused of total indifference toward the lives of 400 people locked in a building with no fire protection or to be accused of continuing the racist tactics of Southern sheriff Bull Connor.

Both of those ugly verdicts were included in a critical review of Milwaukee County’s incarceration practices by the National Institute of Corrections (NIC) under contract with the U.S. Justice Department. County Executive Scott Walker has ordered Ron Malone, superintendent of the House of Correction, to fix all the problems pointed out in the report within 90 days or be fired.

However, many of the worst problems go back for decades. And the continuing deterioration of a firetrap being used to hold work-release prisoners can be tied directly to Walker’s own failure to budget enough funds to maintain county buildings.

The federal report said both the House of Correction in Franklin and the Downtown work-release center had serious fire-safety hazards, but the most stunningly deficient was the Downtown Community Correctional Center (CCC), which Walker has described as “a dive, a total dive.”

The aging building is a roach-infested former hospital that has been the subject of complaints for years about mold, the aroma of raw sewage, dangerous wiring and generally unsanitary conditions. Now the NIC points out that it’s also a fiery inferno waiting to happen for as many as 400 people locked inside. The building houses prisoners on five floors with no sprinklers and a broken alarm system.

It could go up in flames very quickly, with stairwells engulfed in fire, heat or smoke before upper floors could be evacuated, the report said. There will always be some cruel people who are indifferent to what happens to anyone accused of breaking the law, but it should be pointed out that prisoners housed at the CCC are those convicted of the least offenses.

By definition, those housed at the workrelease center are not considered a threat to the community. They are released from the center every day to go to work and return at night to sleep. To Walker’s credit, he wants to demolish the CCC and put those offenders on a GPS monitoring system. Sheriff David Clarke has objected, attempting to stir fears that GPS wouldn’t provide enough protection for the community.

It’s difficult to understand the sheriff’s argument since work-release prisoners are already in the community unsupervised every day.

Disturbing Tactics
While locking prisoners inside a dilapidated building with no fire protection could produce the greatest human tragedy, the use of dogs to control human beings at the House of Correction inflames emotions. The NIC report said the K-9 unit at the House is unusually large—14 dogs and handlers—and the practice outdated. Dogs are rarely used in medium-security facilities these days.

The report also said the use of German shepherd dogs to control a predominantly African-American inmate population is a throwback to a racist image of law enforcement, “evoking Bull Connor and civil rights marches in the South.”

The House budgets $930,000 a year for the 14-dog unit. Assistant Superintendent Jeffrey Mayer made it clear that the dogs were not only used for sniffing out drugs, but to intimidate inmates. The dogs are trained to respond only to commands in German, though that doesn’t mean their handlers are all crew-cut, blond Aryans. All races and both sexes are trained as dog handlers. The German language is used to prevent English commands—such as “Stop!”—from confusing the dog.

A former corrections officer, who is African American, told me it’s not only black prisoners who are intimidated by the dogs. She said she found them intimidating herself. The elimination of contact visits has also eliminated much of the rationale for drug-sniffing dogs, she said.

Since employees sometimes provide drugs within a corrections facility, maybe we should use dogs on guards instead of inmates. The federal report said the county relies on the dogs instead of creating more modern security methods. Six dogs could easily cover three shifts, it said.

Dogs are not in a union that would prevent them from working longer than eight hours with mandated bone and nap breaks. The suggestion from House management that dogs are needed to quell constant inmate disturbances is contradicted by the population of the facility. It includes people awaiting trial, who haven’t been convicted of anything, and people who have been convicted of mostly nonviolent offenses resulting in sentences of a year or less. By far, the most common conviction is operating a vehicle after revocation.

If such low-level offenders are continually rioting, requiring dogs to be set upon them, everyone involved in the management of county incarceration needs to explain why. Otherwise, call off the dogs. What’s your take? Write: editor@shepex.com.

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