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Report shows corrections buildings aren’t fit for dogs

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Joel McNally
January 29, 2008

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 of setting dogs on human beings.


Both of those ugly verdicts were included in a critical review of Milwaukee County’s incarceration practices by the National Institute of Corrections under contract with the U.S. Justice Department.


County Executive Scott Walker has ordered Ron Malone, superintendent of the House of Corrections, 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 money to maintain county buildings.


The federal report said both the House of Corrections in Franklin and the downtown work-release center had serious fire safety hazards. But the most stunningly deficient was the downtown Community Corrections Center, 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 National Institute of Corrections points out it is also a fiery inferno waiting to happen for up to 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 quickly before upper floors could be evacuated, the report said. Ironically, these dangerous, unsanitary conditions of incarceration are reserved for those convicted of the least offenses.


By definition, those housed at the work-release center are not considered threats to the community. They are released into the community 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 because work-release prisoners are already in the community unsupervised every day.


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 National Institute of Corrections 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 raised the question of using German shepherds to control a predominantly African-American inmate population as 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 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, but 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 anyone else shouting commands in English—“Stop!”—from confusing the dog. House management’s claim that dogs are needed to quell constant inmate disturbances is contradicted by the population of the facility.


The House of Correction is for 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.


Joel McNally is a syndicated columnist. His e-mail address is jmcnally@wi.rr.com.

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