This week on WUWM, we’re looking at the issue of youth violence as part of our special Project Milwaukee series. Many young people from Milwaukee who are convicted of violent crimes do their time at Ethan Allen School near Wales, just west of Waukesha. It’s Wisconsin’s most secure prison for boys. Three inmates from Milwaukee say growing up around violence led them to where they are today.
To get to Ethan Allen, you drive along the edge of Lapham State Park, through thick, hilly forests that provide the prison’s backdrop. And even though tall fences and razor wire cut through the natural environment here, it’s still much more peaceful and welcoming than what many of the kids behind the fences are used to.
Three young men – who are going by the nicknames Monta, Flow and T-Mack – are all here for violent crimes. They told me about the Milwaukee neighborhoods they grew up in.
“You see shootings, beatings and people getting chased up and down the street, just a lot of reckless stuff. It’s just so much you see that sometimes that’s all you know. You 8, 9 years old you see people shooting and fighting all the time and you there everyday, eventually you want to start fighting and shooting if you ain’t know nothing else,” Monta says.
“Where I grew up at it was the same thing like that you grow up around it and that’s what you see. Like when I was little, I see other guys getting shot at and to me it was just like the movies, I just sit there and look at it. I won’t run or nothing. It was just something normal to you,” Flow says.
“It was pretty much wild. Everybody was on some illegal crime activity. Everybody was just…it wasn’t no good neighborhood,” T-Mack says.
Monta was convicted of burglary and battery. When he was 15, he and his cousin broke into a man’s house and beat him with baseball bats.
“It was somebody my mom knew, some issues at home, I felt like he was breaking up the family and coming between my mother and my father. And she was going out with him and she wasn’t coming home so that was the only way I felt I can get rid of him is do something to him,” Monta says.
The victim survived, and Monta got three to five years. He was released when he was 17, but got locked up again a few months ago because he lost a bet and robbed someone to pay it off. Now, he’s scheduled to be released in November 2009. Monta says his family was poor – like all the families around him – and the kids didn’t have a lot to do.
“You know when I was young, I was into the Boys and Girls Club and the YMCA, they want like $30, $40 to be a member there. You know they want us to stay out of trouble, we need something to get into that doesn’t cost that much cause what if your family cannot provide for those activities that you want to get into? You know, you go up there and they won’t let you in then where you at, you back on the street. Ain’t too much there for you, ain’t too much there for you on the streets besides trouble,” Monta says.
Perhaps Monta didn’t know that the YMCA waives fees for low-income families, if they ask. But he says almost everything else costs money. Monta says he’s not making excuses for what he did. But he wants people to know some of the reasons kids sometimes make bad decisions.
“If somebody really want to do something they going to try to find a way to get the money even if they’re trying to put it to a good cause. They might try to steal $30 to give it to the YMCA. You never know what the motive behind people doing crime,” Monta says.
Flow, who’s now 23, was convicted of being party to first-degree intentional homicide. He joined a gang when he was 10.
“To me it was like, I didn’t have no brothers so to me they were my brothers,” Flow says.
He says guns were easy to get, and everyone had them.
“I got shot at a couple times. You could be walking or you could be on what they call the hood or whatever and you could get shot at. Or you could be in a car and they could just see you and end up shooting at you,” Flow says. Then, when he was 14… “I was in a car and somebody got shot and killed,” Flow says.
It was a rival gang member who was killed. There was no provocation – the guy was just in the wrong neighborhood. Flow wasn’t the shooter, but he got 10 years at Ethan Allen for being a party to the crime.
The other inmate from Milwaukee, 19-year-old T-Mack, is here for shooting and robbing a drug dealer. Before it happened, he says he was sleeping in drug houses at night, and didn’t go home very often to where his mom was taking care of his sister and four nieces and nephews.
“I was living with the streets. I ain’t want to miss nothing. It was like, fun, like the activity the neighborhood used to have. It’s like, if I’d have went home, I’d have missed something,” T-Mack says.
Monta, Flow and T-Mack say prison has made them better people. They got their high school diplomas, they got therapy and have learned how to make better choices. But they don’t have much hope that kids in Milwaukee’s central city will grow up any differently than they did. T-Mack says it would take a miracle.