Monday, April 24, 2017

Prisoners have rights — and Sheriff David Clarke needs to be held responsible for violating them

David Clarke should be removed from his position as sheriff

Prisoners have rights.

That statement shouldn’t be so profound. But too often, many in our society tend to forget, purposely or not, that prisoners have legal rights that must be adhered to. Even if prisoners have committed a heinous crime, if these rights are violated an injustice has occurred.

The founders of our nation recognized this fact. They enshrined, within the Eighth Amendment, that “cruel and unusual punishments [shall not be] inflicted” on those serving time behind bars.

So when an injustice is performed upon a member of the prisoner population, who’s to blame? It depends on a variety of factors: who issued the order, and who allowed it to happen; who carried out the action, and who turned a blind eye.

In Milwaukee County’s jail, which is overseen by the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s department, a prisoner died because he was not allowed to drink water while in solitary confinement.

From the Journal Sentinel (emphases in bold added):
When [Terrill] Thomas arrived in solitary confinement on April 17, 2016, a corrections officer went to a utility panel and turned off the water in Thomas' cell, surveillance video showed.

"This order to shut off Mr. Thomas' water was highly irregular and contrary to standard operating procedure in the jail," Benkley said. The cutoff of water was never marked in a jail log or written on a whiteboard used to note significant events on the solitary confinement wing, Benkley said. Surveillance video also showed nobody approached the utility panel to turn Thomas' water back on, Benkley said.


Although it likely doesn't factor into his death, prosecutors also noted Thomas was never once taken out of his solitary confinement cell during his seven days there. Inmates are typically given one hour of recreation time per day.
I’ve previously written about the dangers of solitary confinement, and how the practice ought to be curtailed. But this goes beyond problematic policies and ventures into prisoner neglect and abuse.

For Thomas to be deprived of water for that long of a period — even a single day would be outrageous — is demonstrative of a prison system in Milwaukee County jails that is in need of serious attention. Unfortunately, it’s not the only case we have to concern ourselves with.

Three other individuals died under Sheriff David Clarke’s watch in 2016. Two died of heart issues while in jail cells. A third hadn’t committed a crime at all — an infant, born while their mother was imprisoned in the jail, died shortly after birth. Prison guards allegedly “laughed off” the concerns of the mother when she tried to explain she was going into labor.


I'll repeat myself: Prisoners have rights. This includes the right to defend themselves in court, as well as the right to be given proper and safe living conditions in jail or prison until that time comes.

These inmates weren’t granted those rights. It’s disturbing enough that this happened to one inmate. That four have suffered the consequences of gross negligence in Milwaukee County jail demonstrates that the blame goes to more than one individual.

Harry Truman famously said, “the buck stops here.” The responsibility for problems in his administration rested at his feet, and nowhere else.

Sheriff David Clarke offers a different point of view, one that we should reject. He regularly harasses people at airports and on social media. Four individuals have died while under his watch. And he doesn’t seem to see why some might think he has a role to play in that.

A Wisconsin lawmaker from Milwaukee recently requested that Gov. Scott Walker remove Clarke from his duties, a privilege that governors have if they wish to do so. Walker has said he won’t make that move.

But it would be the right one to make. It won’t provide justice for the victims who died on his watch, but it might prevent the occurrence of future victims of his cruel and unusual style of management.

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