CRAWFORD COUNTY - During a recent sentencing hearing held in Crawford County Circuit Court for Jimmy McDaniel’s reckless homicide conviction, the defendant talked about the racism he had experienced while incarcerated in the county jail.
McDaniel addressed the topic of racism during his hour-long statement at least in part as a response to statements made by Crawford County District Attorney Timothy Baxter. The DA had called into question McDaniel’s earlier statements about racism in the jail and court system, as well as the allegation of improper investigation by the sheriff’s department. Baxter indicated the statements were simply excuses that McDaniel was using to try to mitigate his sentence.
However, McDaniel stuck by those claims in his final statement. He said that white inmates were routinely asked if they could live in the jail with a black man. McDaniel also said that younger white inmates often talked about white power. He said he had never seen anything like it in his life.
Crawford County Sheriff Dale McCullick and County Jail Administrator Russ Wittrig discussed those claims and the situation of race at the local jail with the Independent-Scout recently.
“It gets down to protecting the physical safety of inmates,” Sheriff Dale McCullick said. “It also includes providing for their mental security by not allowing intimidation. We have to protect the inmates from physical intimidation and/or other bullying.”
Wittrig allowed there were some elements of truth in what McDaniel had said at his sentencing. The jailer noted that McDaniel was held in a two-person cell during the entire time he was held at the jail.
“Prior to placing anybody in a cell with anyone else, we find out if they are racist toward African-Americans,” Wittrig explained. “We do that with him or any other inmate. It’s about keeping people safe.”
The Crawford County Jail typically does not have a lot of non-white prisoners although there are some, according to McCullick and Wittrig. More of the African-American prisoners come through the Wisconsin Department of Correction probation and parole sanctions. Lots of those prisoners are from LaCrosse. The LaCrosse County Jail will not house the state probation and parole sanctions.
As for young white inmates talking about white power, Sheriff McCullick indicated that was “very possible.”
“White young men can certainly be racist against anyone,” McCullick said. “It can be the same for African-American inmates, who don’t like being around white inmates.”
McCullick likened the situation to state prison where inmates tend to group by ethnicity as whites, blacks, Indians or Mexicans.
“Racism exists in society,” McCullick said. “How are you going to stop it?”
The Crawford County Jail has a capacity of 42 and on the day of our interview held 35 inmates. One of those inmates was non-white. That inmate was of Asian ethnicity.
Wittrig noted that a couple of inmates being non-white at any given moment was probably a good estimate for the Crawford County Jail population. However, he noted the increased number of parole and probation sanctions accepted from LaCrosse County last year may have raised the percentage of non-white inmates.
The sheriff and jailer bring some experience to the table. Wittrig has ben the jail administrator for the past three-and-a-half years and has served with the sheriff’s department for the past 16 years.
Crawford County Sheriff Dale McCullick has served with the department for 27 years.
Wittrig said that other inmates have at times claimed there was racist treatment in the jail, but far more minority inmates have not said anything about it. The jailer said he received one such complaint from McDaniel.
McDaniel had a variety of cellmates in the two-person cell during his extended stay in the jail.
McCullick and Wittrig noted that many of the African-American inmates housed with McDaniel during his stay in the Crawford County Jail did not get along with him and had to be removed—sometimes within hours of being placed in the cell with him.
“He (McDaniel) seemed to get along better with the older white guys we put in the cell with him,” McCullick said.
The priority for the jail is protection of the inmates’ physical safety, according to McCullick and Wittrig. They noted the injury rate in the facility is low.
While inmates do “get into it” with each other, they are constrained by the fact they will pick up more charges for fighting.
The veteran law enforcement officers acknowledged there were dynamics at work in the jail that keep inmates from telling authorities about situations. However, when situations involving conflicts arise, the staff investigates and moves people in an effort to keep everyone safe.
Both McCullick and Wittrig acknowledged that recently law enforcement in general was subject to more charges of racism both in the jail but also on the road.
When McDaniel was talking about racism in the jail, Wittrig had jail staff bring him to the library where he asked him specific questions about the situation. After some conversation, Wittrig said that McDaniel told him he was just “pulling out the race card.”
“I asked him not to do it,” Wittrig said.
McCullick explained there was no reason for his department to be engaging in racist practices. He said his concern was that some people might get an impression that the KKK was running the jail in Crawford County and that “just is not the case.”
Both McCullick and Wittrig indicated they did not have a problem with discussing the issue of racism.
Wittrig routinely discusses policies against discrimination in law enforcement during classes he teaches to students in criminal justice classes.
“One more thing I would add,” McCullick said. “Just because he says it, doesn’t mean it’s true.”
McDaniel was recently convicted of first-degree reckless homicide for killing his girlfriend Linda Kline and sentenced to serve 30 years in prison by Crawford County Circuit Judge Lynn Rider.