By Lois Quinn, Sr. Scientist, UW-Milwaukee Employment and Training Institute
Wisconsin Is “Ground Zero”
We had initially described Milwaukee zipcode 53206 as “ground zero” for mass incarceration given the extreme concentrations of men imprisoned. A study we prepared last month for the Wisconsin NAACP showed, however, that African American men throughout the state have levels of incarceration that are shocking by worldwide standards. Consider that half of all African American men in their 30s in Wisconsin have been incarcerated by the state (1990-2012). And while African Americans make up only 7% of Wisconsin men in their 20s, they comprise 46% of the men in their 20s who are in state prison or have previously been incarcerated.
The United States leads the world in locking up its citizens, and beyond that Wisconsin is an outlier in its use of prisons for law enforcement and treatment of African Americans. The 2010 Census counts showed Wisconsin with the highest rate of incarceration of black males in state prison and local jails in the U.S.
Clearly, this is not a “Milwaukee problem.” It is a “Wisconsin problem.” We have become a state that allocates more state tax dollars to the Department of Corrections than to the University of Wisconsin system. The DOC spends over $1/2 million a day incarcerating African American men from Milwaukee County, according to 2012 cost estimates.
Nonprofits Are Critical
The faith community through MICAH and WISDOM 11x15 for several years has provided leadership in recommending reforms and speaking to the need for “second chances.” Recently we’ve seen valuable media explorations of the causes and impacts of our incarceration practices thanks to an extremely enlightening six-month Project Milwaukee series by WUWM and MPTV on "Black Men in Prison," columns by James Causey of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and WPR, NPR, and WisconsinEye interviews.
We know from our ETI work with the Milwaukee Area Workforce Investment Board and the Center for Driver’s License Recovery & Employability that ex-offenders are among the most difficult clients to serve and too often face continuing obstacles to finding and maintaining employment. The problems don’t go away when the men come home, but continue to need addressing. At the same time our youth need to know that they have opportunities, that they will be treated with respect, and that their dreams are possible.
When a BBC reporter came to Milwaukee last August to look at how Wisconsin could be locking up so many black men, I was at a loss to explain why we had allowed this to happen, but could only reiterate my belief that this has to change. As I’ve participated in discussions and community forums since that time, I’ve been struck by the thoughtfulness, generosity and resilience of the men and families impacted by our “criminal justice” practices. They have provided courageous voices while so many of us have been silent for far too long about what we’ve become as a state and community and in addressing the devastating impacts of our policies and practices on thousands of Wisconsin families.
Clearly, the nonprofit agencies are on the “front lines” in serving children, families, and ex-offenders. We need to support them and listen to their advice on what is needed in the “inner city” and changes that they would recommend in the priorities of the “outer city” to rebuild the fabric of our community and state.
The ETI research reports are available online at www.eti.uwm.edu.