This article is tied to a three part series focusing on the 2016 arrest of Ryan Allyn Sanders. The 18 year old was arrested by police after being linked to an alleged plan to violently break someone out of jail. Police characterized Sanders as a gang leader commanding a group called HFS, or Hells Fire Squadron. However, several details of the group and the plot uncovered by police weren’t quite as reported. Catch up on these in Part 1, How To Get Arrested For A Plan That Never Happened, and Part 2, The Gang That Never Quite Existed.
Released And Speaking Out
Milwaukee, Wisconsin (PT) – After several months in the Milwaukee County jail, 18 year old Ryan Allyn Sanders was cleared of the charges against him. He’d already been out for a couple months by the time he was interviewed by TFC Network writers with Pontiac Tribune. According to him, TFC Network was the only media outlet to contact him following his release. “These charges have not been proven”, reads his CCAP, “and have no legal effect. Ryan Allyn Sanders is presumed innocent.”
Ryan Sanders was arrested on April 19th, 2016 following an investigation by Wauwatosa officers. Police linked the Milwaukee resident to a “plot” to break a friend out of jail, and kill police officers in the process. He was pinned as the leader of a gang police called Hell’s Fire Squadron, known to members as The King. According to police, HFS was involved in robberies and other illegal activities under Sanders’ orders.
However, both the story behind the group and plot weren’t as clean cut as authorities made it appear. Not only was the plot discovered weeks after it was supposed to have happened, but Sanders says HFS was misrepresented. TFC Network picked up the case after Sanders was released. Our findings, supported by court and Tosa PD documents, can be read in part one and two of this series.
For his alleged role in the plot, Ryan Sanders was charged with conspiracy to commit first degree intentional homicide, facing 60 years in prison. He saw quite a lot behind bars before being cleared, and reflected with TFC Network on his incarceration. Sanders told Pontiac Tribune he’d witnessed guard abuses and been subjected to lengthy solitary confinement. He was also familiar with the man who died of dehydration last summer. According to Ryan, water deprivation was a common punishment.
Upon being released, Sanders stated the District Attorney who’d made a case against him, Randy Sitzberger, apologized. “He asked the judge to drop all my charges”, Sanders told Pontiac Tribune, “because he realized he was wrong. That’s how I got released.” No other compensation, however, was provided for the ordeal Sanders endured for close to a year. According to a court transcript, Sitzberger moved to vacate the charges on March 31st, 2017. The 18 year old instead served community service and probation for lessened charges before being cleared entirely.
After being arrested by Wauwatosa detectives, Sanders was transported to POD 4D in the Milwaukee County Jail’s disciplinary unit. During the same month, April 2016, Milwaukee was swallowed with controversy over the death of 38 year old Terrill Thomas. The man, who’d arrived in the jail reputedly in psychological distress, later died of dehydration in his cell. Guards cut off Thomas’ water for seven days before he succumbed. Afterward, Sanders noted that his cell block got new camera’s. “We knew something was up” he said.
An email from Milwaukee County Jail confirming Ryan Sander’s placement at POD 4D and duration of stay.
Ryan Sanders told TFC Network that shutting off water, denying food, hygiene supplies, and other essentials was common practice. Although Ryan says guards weren’t supposed to do that, little recourse existed for accountability. Sometimes an inmate would be cut off of resources as punishment, or simply due to spite from a guard. While on POD 4D, Sanders also claims to have witnessed beatings by numerous guards.
One instance was so violent and unprovoked, in fact, that Sanders says he and fellow POD-mates filed “numerous grievances” to the guard command. None were answered, and Ryan fears they may have been discarded. Although Milwaukee County Jails provided Sanders’ POD assignment after open records requests, they stated no record of guard complaints were located.
In another, an inmate arrived known to have a heart condition and was supposed to be checked by guards every 15 minutes. They didn’t, Sanders claims, and the man was kept on the top tier whereas he was supposed to be on the bottom tier. When he began having what some thought was a heart attack, Sanders recalled everyone on the cell block made as much noise as possible. They also reputedly pressed their emergency buttons, but no guards came immediately. When they finally did, Ryan said, they were only bringing in a new inmate. Not responding to their calls, banging, kicking, and emergency bells.
Speaking to the nature of the captivity itself, Ryan had a lot to say. Due to the accusation that he was a gang leader planning to kill cops, he was kept in maximum security. Thus, he had very little contact with other people or even a space outside his cell. Ryan called the area he was in “the hole”, and went onto vividly describe his experiences in it.
“Let me just tell you a little about the hole. People don’t really understand. They think, ‘oh it’s just solitary and you’re in there and it’s not that bad.’ But they don’t understand that it’s made to break a person. You’re already in jail , that’s punishment. They send you to the hole while you’re already in jail, so it’s made to break you. You have people smearing feces on the walls, on the windows, and you have to smell that. You can’t see the sun, you know. They give you a tiny window but it’s blurred so you can’t see anything out of it. So, imagine not seeing the sun the whole time you’re there. You know what I mean? The food is terrible, they don’t feed you well, I got very unhealthily skinny. I got out, and I started eating good and I got fat. When I got out, my mother was concerned because you could see my rib cage. People, even in the jail, would say, ‘man you look like you’ve been smoking’, you know what I mean? There were people that would come to the hole, and be there for two months, and go completely crazy.”– Ryan Sanders on solitary confinement.
According to Ryan, when people entered the hole it didn’t take long for them to unravel. He witnessed seemingly healthy, normal people begin talking to themselves, or laughing hysterically. Some inmates noticed that Ryan, however, remained strong throughout his stay. Even his mental competency evaluation on June 30th 2016 noted this. “Mr. Sanders had a pleasant demeanor”, it reads, “he denied any depression. He denied any prominent anxiety. He denied any thoughts of harming himself or others.” “It was really like you were a cage animal”, Ryan told TFC Network and Pontiac Tribune. Although he tried to stay strong, Ryan says The Hole “kind of broke me.”
Many of Ryan’s accounts closely resemble the tragic story of Kalief Browder. After a very questionable arrest by NYPD officers, Browder was taken to Rikers Island where he stayed for three years without a trial. Most of that was spent in solitary confinement, where he was abused by guards and prisoners. Some of these attacks were captured on prison cameras and footage obtained by journalists. Upon being released, Browder recounted his experiences to whoever would listen. However, despite hoping to rebuild his life, Browder later committed suicide in his home. He was 22 years old. His mother soon died of what her surviving son called a broken heart.
The imprisonment and suicide of Kalief Browder became an iconic case for the fight against solitary confinement. Prisons disproportionately house black and latino inmates, whether male or female. As such, the issue of solitary confinement and its ethics also disproportionately affect those communities. Kalief Browder raised a multitude of issues, from wrongful imprisonment, to solitary confinement and mental health, surveillance and compensation after-the-fact. He showed the world that America’s inmates, especially teens, never cease being human after becoming statistics. Browder demonstrated the human costs which arresting officers, guards, and national spectators don’t see.
Ryan Allyn Sanders’ case mirrors Browder’s, as unfortunate as that sounds. What’s more, due to the fact that the two other suspects in his case were 17 at the time, the then 18 year old took all the blame. He’s the face of HFS, the alleged plot to kill police officers, and everything in between. That’s how Tosa PD left Ryan Sanders, with his story to disappear within the court system.
Today, Sanders is attempting rebuild his life, get employed and perhaps enroll in college. However, the aftermath of his case has perhaps made this more difficult to achieve. The office of District Attorney Randy Sitzberger, and the Wauwatosa Police Department haven’t responded to our requests for comment on Ryan’s arrest.