A jury awarded $6.7 million to a former female inmate at the Milwaukee County jail who said she was raped at least five times by a correctional officer there.
The woman, who was pregnant at the time, also said she was shackled to her bed while giving birth in violation of her constitutional rights. While the jury said the restraints had “no legitimate non-punitive” purpose, as Fox 6 in Milwaukee reported, it concluded that she had suffered no particular harm from being shackled and awarded no damages for that.
The damages will be paid by Milwaukee County because the corrections officer, Xavier Thicklen, was an employee when the sexual assaults occurred, reported the Associated Press. The county will likely appeal the jury’s verdict.
The verdict comes amid a tumultuous time for the Milwaukee County jail, which is overseen by controversial Sheriff David Clarke, an outspoken supporter of President Trump who has said he will be leaving his post for a job with the Department of Homeland Security.
Clarke became popular with conservatives by portraying himself as a tough, no-nonsense sheriff, a kind of Midwestern version of former Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County in Arizona. Republicans made him a featured speaker at their convention in Cleveland in July.
His reputation has been damaged, however, by accusations of abuse at the jail he runs.
Just last month, an inquest jury determined that there was probable cause to bring criminal charges against seven Milwaukee County Jail officials in the death of an inmate, Terrill Thomas, who was held for seven consecutive days without water or a mattress, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported.
Thomas, 38, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. The county’s district attorney will now determine whether to actually bring charges in the case.
The young woman in the civil case decided Wednesday said the assaults occurred while she was an inmate in the jail in 2013. She was 19 at the time, pregnant and powerless when Thicklen allegedly assaulted her, the woman testified during the trial.
“He used his keys, his power, his authority to get in these places and rape me,” she said, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
“She was raped repeatedly at the age of 19. She sought justice and she is glad the system delivered that justice,” the woman’s attorney, Theresa Kleinhaus, told the Journal Sentinel. “She hopes to prevent other women from being sexually assaulted in the Milwaukee County Jail.”
Thicklen resigned his corrections officer job at the end of 2013 as soon as the Milwaukee County sheriff’s office began investigating the woman’s claims, reported the Journal Sentinel.
Prosecutors later charged Thicklen with five felony counts of sexual assault, then dropped them as part of a deal when the man pleaded no contest to one felony count of misconduct in public office.
A circuit court judge sentenced Thicklen to three days and a fine of $200. He had faced a maximum 200 years in prison under the dropped sexual assault charges.
Thicklen has repeatedly denied the sexual assault claims. His lawyer in 2014 told the Journal Sentinel the misconduct claim stemmed from Thicklen “being too sympathetic to inmates” and giving the woman candy and gum and letting her make an unauthorized phone call.
“She was an agitator and he was trying to mollify her,” the attorney, Lew Wasserman, told the newspaper. “He gave her Jolly Ranchers out of his lunch and Doublemint gum.”
At that time, the woman had already filed a federal lawsuit alleging that the sexual assaults, improper nutrition and shackles during childbirth violated her constitutional rights.
A certified nurse midwife, Emily Malloy, testified during the civil trial that she helped deliver the woman’s baby and urged that the shackles be removed, reported the Journal Sentinel. Chains on the mother during labor can delay the process and block oxygen flow to the baby, Malloy testified.
After the delivery, Malloy told the jury she received a thank-you note from the woman. It was the first time that had happened in the 165 births she has handled.
“Thank you for treating me like a human being,” it said, according to the Journal Sentinel.
Clarke, the sheriff, had previously defended the shackling policy, arguing that it protected hospital staff from potentially dangerous inmates. In March of this year, a second inmate filed a similar lawsuit, claiming that she was put in chains each time she was hospitalized for care related to her pregnancy.
While Clarke has said he is getting an appointment to head the Office of Partnership and Engagement at Homeland Security, no announcement has been made.
Clarke became a favorite of conservatives and attracted national attention for his attacks on President Barack Obama, who he suggested encouraged violence in Ferguson, Mo. He became an outspoken critic of the Black Lives Matter movement, which he described as a “terrorist” and “hate” group.
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