By Gretchen Schuldt for   Published Jun 07, 2005 at 5:02 AM

{image1}Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke is going to get himself in trouble if he keeps blasting W-2 and other government welfare handouts.

Someone might notice that he's just as dependent on government money to save him from his own bad choices as the most down-and-out welfare recipients are.

Clarke's jail scandal has been almost invisible so far, but the quiet may be destroyed fairly soon by the sound of cash registers ringing up county liability payouts and the groans of taxpayers as the costs of yet another county screw-up hits home.

This is Clarke's mess, but others will have to pay the clean-up costs. For Sheriff David Clarke, personal responsibility begins over there, with that other guy.

The basic story is pretty simple. The county signed a consent decree a few years ago saying inmates can be held for no more than 30 hours in the jail's booking area, an open area surrounded by holding cells.

The county signed it, and Clarke's department proceeded to violate it.

Inmates, many of whom had not been convicted of anything, were held 48, 60 and 72 hours. Some were held for more than 100 hours. These inmates slept in crowded holding cells on the dirty concrete floor without blankets or bedding, in unsanitary conditions. Pass the disease, please.

The Sheriff's Department didn't violate the 30-hour provision just once or twice or 10 times. It violated the legally binding agreement more than 13,000 times from October 2002 to April 2004, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin Foundation Inc. and Legal Action of Wisconsin Inc.

The county acknowledges repeated violations, but has not acknowledged any specific number.

"We've discovered a problem, and there is a problem," Assistant Corporation Counsel John Schapekahm told Circuit Judge Clare Fiorenza during a court hearing last spring.

Clarke's oblivious management style put both staff and inmates at risk. Crowding, a former jail administrator testified, "increases the tension and hostility in what is already an anxious environment, which can lead to fights or assaults on deputies," according to court filings. Crowding "increases the likelihood that a deputy might be attacked or overpowered."

There was considerable tension and hostility in the holding area, according to the ACLU and Legal Action. There was plenty of fear, too. A middle-aged African-American inmate, for example, told lawyers he was afraid when his large white cell-mate declared that he "'hate(d) n-----s' after bragging that he threw his wife or girlfriend through a window," according to court filings.

Another inmate held in booking for days was unable to let his wife know where he was -- the jail phone system blocked his calls home. The time in the jail was the worst in his life, he said. It was worse, even, than his stint in Vietnam.

These violations occurred on Clarke's watch, under his command.

If he knew about them, shame on him.

If he did not know about them, shame on him.

The inmates should not have been treated the way they were. What happened in the jail wasn't Abu Ghraib, but it shouldn't be Milwaukee County, either. Clarke is in no position to blather on about the obligations of the poor. He has fallen woefully short of his own obligations as sheriff.

Poor people in jail don't get a lot of sympathy -- there's a general feeling that whatever it is they did to get into trouble was something they shouldn't have done.

Clarke shouldn't get much sympathy, either. His department is in trouble now for allegedly doing something more than 13,000 times that it shouldn't have done at all.

The county has hired outside lawyers from the Whyte Hirschboeck Dudek law firm to help it minimize the fallout from Clarke's mismanagement. A judge has indicated that some sort of damages may be awarded.

There are lawyers to pay, and there may be damages to pay, but it won't be David Clarke paying them.

He'll just be another guy in line who made bad choices and is waitin' on that government check to help him get by.

Schuldt, a former Milwaukee newspaper reporter, runs, a Milwaukee neighborhood Web news site.

The opinions expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect the opinions of, its advertisers or editorial staff.

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