RACINE — National civil rights leaders from the Chicago-based Rainbow PUSH Coalition say they are working to get an independent investigation into the recent deaths of two men at the Racine County Jail, while the local effort focuses on mental health.
A Racine County Board member, Fabi Maldonado, has joined calls for more transparency in the investigation of the deaths while also joining demands for a federal investigation.
"The Sheriff has recently stated that there is a lot of misinformation going on. The community deserves full transparency throughout the investigation. That’s why the sheriff's office needs to immediately release the camera footage for the intake area, the observation rooms, and the CERT body cams for both families," Maldonado said in a Thursday statement. "The Black Lives Matter movement has brought to the forefront the assault on African Americans within the criminal justice system. The death of two men of color while in jail has raised the antenna of those of us who are concerned about abusive behavior within the criminal justice system. This case has now drawn national attention. Clearly, the community is watching very closely what transpired prior to the deaths of the two young men and deserves answers immediately."
'National march' called for
Bishop Tavis l. Grant II, national field director of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, stood on the steps of the courthouse Wednesday to call for a "national march" on Racine to draw attention to the deaths of two men in the Racine County Jail.
Ronquale Ditello-Scott, 22, and Malcolm James, 27, died at the Racine County Jail on May 29 and June 1, respectively.
Few details have been released thus far by the Racine County Sheriff's Office, which operates the jail. The family of James says that he was tased before his death and Ditello-Scott's loved ones say he had suffered a hematoma to the head, but those claims have not been acknowledge by authorities.
Grant said that Rev. Jesse Jackson, the founder of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, was reaching out to the U.S. Justice Department in an effort to get an independent investigation into the deaths of the two men.
“There’s a problem with that place across the street, and there’s a problem with the jail in this city, and there’s a problem with the sheriff’s office in this city,” Tavis said Wednesday on the steps of the Racine County Courthouse.
Heather Blesch, the fiancée of Ronquale Ditello-Scott, and Sherry James, mother of Malcolm James, lean on each other for support during a Wedn…
The investigation is currently in the hands of the Kenosha County Sheriff’s Department. However, there has been an uneasy relationship between communities of color and Kenosha County Sheriff David Beth, especially since his 2018 comments calling for certain people to be “warehoused” and that some “aren’t worth saving” following the arrest of five black people for shoplifting, comments that were revisited in his response to the Aug. 23 shooting of Jacob Blake by a Kenosha police officer and ensuing protests where the American Civil Liberties Union called for his resignation.
“The Kenosha Sheriff’s Department is not worthy and the sheriff is not worthy,” Tavis said. “He has said disparaging, racial, disrespectful things about black and brown people.”
Added Maldonado: "Currently, major elements of our community have very little faith in the Kenosha Sheriff's office." Maldonado then referenced the Beth's 2018 statements, saying that "the Kenosha sheriff has raised concerns regarding the ability of the Kenosha County Sheriff's Department to lead a fair and impartial investigation.
"Therefore I call on either the Wisconsin State Department of Justice or the Federal Department of Justice to lead this investigation immediately."
A federal investigation could be more expansive. Instead of investigating just the death of the two men, a federal investigation could investigate if systemic issues relating to race are present in the jail.
A mental health focus
Wednesday’s rally on the steps of the courthouse was organized by the Racine Women for Racial Justice and was attended by the Ditello-Scott and James families. There also were representatives from Black Lives Matter organizations.
Kelly Scroggins-Powell, RWRJ’s co-founder and director, called for systemic changes in the local criminal justice system.
“We want to see the end of the criminalization of the mentally ill,” she said.
James was reportedly in a mental health crisis when he was taken into custody for allegedly setting his own apartment on fire and then calling police on himself.
The Sheriff’s Office reported that James started hitting his own head against the wall of his cell on May 29, was hospitalized, but then resumed hitting his head against the cell wall on June 1 after he was returned to the jail. He died soon after his return to the jail.
Nicole Smart, program director for the National Alliance for Mental Health of Racine, attended the rally and told those gathered a community is only as strong as its weakest member.
Nicole Smart, program director for the ational Alliance on Mental Illness of Racine, addressed Wednesday's crowd on issues of mental illness.
“If we can’t be there to lift up that weakest individual, our community is going to fail,” Smart said. “We are failing as a community to lift up people with mental illness and make sure they get the treatment and the help that they need when they ask for it.”
Smart quoted a U.S. Surgeon General’s report that concluded communities of color have less access and fewer resources to address issues of mental health.
“They are less likely to receive care and more likely to receive poor care,” she said.
Smart said it was time the community start asking questions: Why is there such disparity between communities of color and others in terms of mental health care? Why don’t we have crisis services for the individual seeking help? And what can we do about it.
She explained legislation is being introduced that would bring a 988 service to Wisconsin. Similar to 911, 988 is an emergency line for those in a mental health crisis.
“It sounds great, right,” she said. “It’s something we’d all like to have.”
Unfortunately, she continued, the community simply doesn’t have the services to back it up.
Smart explained there are some unknowns with the 988 line. With insufficient resources, will the call be transferred to the police?
She said the budget has funding for those services, “but it is being ripped apart as we speak.”
Smart encouraged those the rally to speak up, make their voices heard, and to join groups like NAMI and other mental health organizations to bring about change.