Project Milwaukee
1:00 am
Wed November 13, 2013

Thousands of Black Men Follow Common Path to Prison

Becky Redmond-Walker counseled Paul Rice in the months before he was released from prison. Rice served 20 years, and now looks forward to working full-time and helping kids stay on the right path.

In 2010, one in eight working-age black men in Wisconsin was in prison. WUWM News meets one of them.

“My name is Paul Rice and I’m 37 years old.”

Rice grew up on Milwaukee’s south side, in a neighborhood known for gang rivalries.

“A situation had took place where some guys tried to jump me and a friend of mine. We end up getting away, but I was at the age where the pressure to either become part of the gang or probably be faced with more and increasing acts of violence committed against me,” Rice says.

Or, Rice says, against his family. There was no father in the house, so he thought joining a gang would help him protect his mother and siblings.

Rice says he didn’t carry a gun around the neighborhood, but if he needed one, he could get it. And he says that day came, when he was 16 years old.

“A situation occurred between two rival gangs. A gun was drawn on us. We all ran back to our hangout and it just escalated from there and we end up shooting at the rival gang, killing one and injuring one,” Rice says.

Rice was convicted of two felonies, and sentenced to 40 years in prison.

It’s a strikingly common story.

“Over half of young African American men in Milwaukee County have already served time in state prison,” says Lois Quinn of UWM’s Employment and Training Institute.

She authored the report this year showing Wisconsin had, by far, the highest rate of black male incarceration in the country. Quinn cites several reasons, including Wisconsin’s tougher drug laws.

“Add to that, intense racial segregation, limited job opportunities when manufacturing slowed down and you’ve got a very toxic combination. And then on the plus side, if you can call it that, a very effective police force, very effective policing and a Legislature very aggressive about adding offenses that are mandatory prison sentences,” Quinn says.

Quinn has broken down the numbers since 1990. Of all the black men from Milwaukee County sent to prison, 40 percent were for drug offenses. A third went in for non-violent crimes and the rest, for everything from robbery to murder. She says most offenders are in their 30s and come from the poorest neighborhoods on Milwaukee’s north and south sides.

“These are not isolated people that nobody knows. These are members of the community. When half the community of a certain age is locked up, this is the community,” Quinn says.

In addition to poverty, another common thread among black men in prison is unemployment. So is the absence of a father, according to Becky Redmond-Walker.

“And they got affiliated or involved in the streets where there was support, there was love, there was acceptance and they replaced all the things that we receive from our father, with bad influences,” Walker says.

Walker works for the Center for Self Sufficiency in Milwaukee. It helps men nearing the end of their prison terms prepare for life on the outside. She says release can be daunting.

“We had this saying in the work release center, when you were incarcerated the clock was at 12 and stayed at 12 o’clock for however long you were incarcerated. But for the people in the community, time kept going. So they’re afraid of the changes, like technology, how employers will embrace them for work opportunities,” Walker says.

“It’s a little of both. A little fear, a little excitement,” Rice says.

Paul Rice just got out, after serving 20 years of his 40-year sentence. He spent the last few months in a detention facility while working at a manufacturing company. It’s promised to keep him on full-time if shows up every day, on time.

Rice calls himself lucky. The majority of ex-offenders say no one will hire them.

“People have to be punished for the crimes that they commit. I have no doubt about that. But you gotta keep that focus on rehabilitation. If we lose that in Wisconsin, then you just throwing generations and generations of people away, and that’s not the right way to go,” Rice says.

Rice says when he’s more settled, he’d like to share his story with kids in Milwaukee in hopes that fewer of them follow his path to prison.