Wisconsin imprisons a higher percentage of black men than any other state in the country – the statistics are well-known. What gets less attention is the number of people here, mainly men, whom the criminal justice system sends back to prison without convicting them of a new crime.
A new report, titled Excessive Revocations in Wisconsin: The Health Impacts of Locking People Up Without a New Convinction, sheds light on crimeless revocations of parole. The group WISDOM, which aims to end mass incarceration in Wisconsin, commissioned the study.
So here’s a statistic you might find startling. In 2015, around 3,000 people in Wisconsin were behind bars, not because they committed a crime, but because they violated the terms of their parole. The number comes from the report that WISDOM commissioned, and Mark Rice understands what it found.
In 2007, just as Rice was about to start his second year of graduate school at UW-Milwaukee, he was arrested for disorderly conduct. He says he wanted a woman’s phone number but was too aggressive and she called police.
“The judge dismissed the case, but I did not get to go home. My probation officer in Milwaukee who had no specialized training in mental health issues moved forward with the revocation process,” Rice says.
Rice says he spent six months in Milwaukee’s secure detention center fighting his revocation. Now the back story is at age 19, Rice was sentenced to 30 months in prison and 12 years’ probation for armed robbery. He says he stole guns and kept some for himself while selling the others.
“I was having all types of crazy thoughts thinking…I thought that people were scheming against me. I felt like I needed to have guns to protect myself,” he says.
While in prison, Rice was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. "I was suffering from symptoms, having delusional thoughts and having auditory hallucinations and I didn’t know how to deal with it,” he says.
Rice says in prison, he got his mental condition under control and started taking classes and continued them once he got out.
And there were quite a few rules he had to follow, while on probation. For instance, Rice says he could not go into bars, he had to attend weekly therapy sessions and he could not leave the state without permission.
Rice says he didn’t need to be locked up in 2007 when his parole officer started the revocation process, what he needed was more help.
“I lost my job, I was working at the time, I was working as a project assistant at UW-Milwaukee, had a full tuition scholarship. I eventually went back to UW-Milwaukee and completed my Master’s degree program, but I never got my financial assistance back, I never got my job back,” Rice says.
“So imagine having to live having to follow all of these complicated rules, almost too many for any normal person to try to keep in mind. They’re almost impossible for anyone to follow. And to have the threat of being sent back to prison by violating a rule that a normal person wouldn’t have to think about, like buying a cell phone without permission or leaving the county without permission or having your bracelet malfunction, this stress is constant,” Doctor Geoffrey Swain says. He is a professor of family medicine and community health at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health.
And Swain says chronic stress can make people sick. “Those hormone levels stay high, and high levels of adrenaline or epinephrine cause high blood pressure, so high blood pressure causes heart disease and stroke, high levels of cortisol cause disruptions in glucose metabolism so it drives obesity and diabetes,” he says.
Swain says studies show that more investment in treatment and diversion programs would help.
“Cause that’s what they need right? In the long run, it would save taxpayers money and make us healthier,” he says.
According to WISDOM’s study, Wisconsin spent more than $147 million last year imprisoning people who had violated a technical rule of their parole. And nearly half those people have been diagnosed with a mental illness.
As for former inmate Mark Rice, he’s now off probation. In 2009, he earned a master’s degree in urban studies and a second masters in 2013 in nonprofit management. Rice is currently working on his PHD and is employed by a group called EXPO, or Ex-Prisoners Organizing.