One of Milwaukee's most outspoken advocates for racial justice is calling Wisconsin's disproportionate incarceration of black men an "undeclared state of emergency."
“There’s no particular race in society that is going to fail and not affect the entire society…If the black men fail, eventually the whole society will fail,” says Rev. Willie Brisco.
— Jahtnamas (@eep_one) March 11, 2014
Last year, a study out of UW-Milwaukee found that the state has the nation’s highest rate - one in eight - of putting black men behind bars, by far. In Milwaukee County, more than half of black men in their thirties have served time in prison.
Now the president of MICAH (Milwaukee Inner-City Congregations Allied for Hope), Brisco saw the cost of mass incarceration throughout his 25-year career in law enforcement and corrections.
“We still want to say we are tough on crime and we want to lock people up and throw away the key…People don’t disappear when they go behind bars,” he says. “It costs to keep those people behind bars. Truth in sentencing is costing us a ton of money, destroying a ton of lives.”
But Milwaukeean Torre Johnson says there's little urgency to fix the problem from those who have created the prison system.
"It ain't broken to the people who fixed it like that," he says. "There's money in prisons. They thank you for coming."
Johnson spent most of his adult life in and out of prison, first getting involved with gangs and crime as a teen and later being charged with first degree intentional homicide.
“When I was doing what I was doing, you don’t think about prison because prison don’t mean nothing,” says Johnson, who now works for Wisconsin Community Services. "You can't rehabilitate someone who's never lived."
“What you call 1st and Burleigh, that might be prison to us. If prison is like a state of mind, we already locked up. So actually, you kind of saved us because I get three meals a day (in prison), recreation, you get your teeth fixed or whatever. So a lot of people is in a better situation in prison than they is out here," he says.
Employment opportunities for black men in Milwaukee are scarce. In the zip code 53206, one of the neighborhoods hardest hit by the high incarceration rate – what some people call "the zoo" – a third of the area’s working-age adults are unemployed. And black men who go to prison are released with "a stigma attached" and "an anvil to their back," says Rev. Brisco.
That includes Marcus Lee, who previously served time in a Wisconsin prison for third degree sexual assault. He says with his record, he can’t find a job.
“That killed me because I couldn’t do anything. I still can’t do anything. No money to feed myself or to feed my family. What do you do when you have no other options and all the doors are closed in your face and every time you go into an interview, someone is telling you, ‘I’m not going to hire you, sorry?’” he says. “I’m struggling daily. Daily. Right now I’m facing eviction.”
Indeed, lack of resources in poor neighborhoods & inherent unequal sentencing based on race & poverty is basis of problem. #prisonimpact
— Mary DallyMuenzmaier (@CricketToes) March 11, 2014
Milwaukee native Mark Evans says such men can't give up hope and must pursue any opportunities they can find. The former inmate was was found guilty of several charges in the 1980s and 1990s, including First Degree Sexual Assault and Escape, Second Degree Sexual Assault, Burglary and Theft. Evans says he dropped out of college in 1985. Then, in 1994, while he was incarcerated, he says he became a Christian and obtained a doctorate of divinity. Today, he he’s chair of the faith committee of the Milwaukee Fatherhood Initiative.
Unfortunately, many of the programs once offered to men in prison have been cut – even while the total dollars spent on the state’s correctional budget has exceeded the UW System’s budget, says MICAH’s Brisco.
Former Milwaukee County district attorney E. Michael McCann says it's important to police crime, but budget cuts have left many men who had few opportunities before prison with even fewer after they are released.
“There’s no questions over the years, as we all saw as incarceration rose, less and less resources went, I believe, to rehabilitation, in terms of drug treatment programs and so on,” he says. “Punishment is certainly is part of it, but the hope is of society, the idea is there will be rehabilitation for that person, that they will come out a different person. That means a commitment. Is society ready to commit substantial resources for those reforms? And we’ve been in an era in the last 20 years where there isn’t a lot of that.”
Brisco says he advocates for social programs for the incarcerated, but the more important priority is jobs and opportunity in the first place.
“That is what is lacking in our community. I want Northwestern Mutual to be built on 27th and Capitol. I want the trolley to run down 3rd Street. I want the new hotel to be up on 35th and Capitol. I don’t want it in the Third Ward, I don’t want it on the Riverwalk,” he says. “I want the opportunities to come back to this city because you can trace where the crime, the drugs and the gangs came in when A. O. Smith, Allen Bradley and Allis-Chalmers moved out. There was nothing done to replace that. We can’t keep putting crime on the backs of black people when they don’t have opportunity.”
Evans says it’s time for action, not just talk.
“I’m ready to stand and take a stand on what’s wrong in my community and in our community at large. I’m tired of spending money sitting around talking about stuff. I’m tired of paying my taxes for these research programs and ain’t nothing changing. We the people need to get out and do what we been doing because we created the problem, we have to solve the problem,” he says.
A town hall forum focusing on solutions to the state’s high black male incarceration rate will be held on May 20th at Milwaukee Public Library’s Central Library, hosted by WUWM and MPTV.
Watch the entire panel discussion and Q&A session: