By: Laurel Turner, MKE123 & Online Outreach Coordinator, Nonprofit Center of Milwaukee
"To realize the old practices of just simply warehousing people, putting them in jail without any opportunity to improve themselves while they're in custody, simply doesn't work, and the results are where we are today." - Michael Hafemann, superintendent of the Milwaukee County House of Corrections.
On Tuesday, May 20th I attended the WUWM Town Hall on black male incarceration in Milwaukee. You may be aware that a study has recently come out naming Wisconsin as incarcerating the most black males in the entire United States. A black male stands a 1 in 3 chance of being incarcerated in his lifetime and 1 in 8 black men of working age are currently behind bars, double the national average. The prison population in Wisconsin has tripled since 1990.
This high imprisonment rate means that we are spending a lot of money on corrections, to the tune of 1.2 billion per year.
The event consisted of 2 sets of panelists, moderated by Mitch Teich of WUWM and Joanne Williams of MPTV. Notable contributions in the first set of panelists came from: Lois Quinn a senior scientist with UWM’s Employment and Training Institute, and co-author of the study that showed Wisconsin has the nation’s highest rate of black male incarceration. Lois had a particular ability to place the problem in perspective and gave an attainable first step, of returning driver’s education to public schools. Trouble with the law, for many young black men, she said, starts with driving without a license or traffic violations.
State Sen. Nikiya Harris (D) Milwaukee, elected to the Senate in 2012. She represents the 6th District on the city’s north side, which has some of the state’s highest rates of black male incarceration and black male unemployment. Nikiya made a point of talking about the work that’s already happening in the state senate, in the form of committees, potential bills and community work.
Picture: First panel, Mitch Teich, Joanne Williams, Lois Quinn, Andre Brown, Michael Hafemann, Rep. Rob Hutton, Sen. Nikiya Harris, Nathan Holton,
In the second panel, much of the conversation was directed at Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn. While he tended to focus on police strategy and a data driven police force, many emotional audience members wanted answers about the experiences of their imprisoned friends or family and the racial profiling many felt they had experienced from Milwaukee Police.
Some of the discussions had centered on solutions to imprisonment, including repealing the truth in sentencing laws and improving rehabilitation and diversion facilities so fewer people went to prison in the first place.
Other issues brought up by the audience were:
Much of the meeting was the public being able to direct their questions, concerns & comments directly to the panel. They told their stories in conjunction with their questions.
One of the most moving stories was by a woman named Africa, which I remember, because she told Chief Flynn to remember her name. She told the story of losing three sons to the violence of Milwaukee’s streets. One of her son’s killers went unpunished because he gave information to Milwaukee police. Another son’s killer was behind bars, and had been for the last 15 years. She said she had forgiven that young man, and visited him in prison. She had written letters to the parole board asking for his release, and though his behavior in prison had been good, they still would not release him. She talked about the man’s daughter, 8 years old when he went to prison and 23 now. She said, “Nobody can tell me why he hasn’t been released. Nobody knows why he’s still there.”
Another woman spoke about her son who was in prison and had been granted the right to work through the Huber law, but couldn’t keep his job because there was no one to pick him up and drop him off every day.
A man in a baseball cap shared the story of his son, in prison, being subjected to solitary confinement. He felt the practice should be abolished, as it has been in most states.
In answer to a father’s concern, Minister William Harrell, founder of Table of Saints shared his experience of spending 190 days in solitary confinement, and how some of the men locked up with him were serving 360 days confinement.
There were many moving stories and stirring questions at this event, and I applaud WUWM for opening up the conversation and convening so many people around this issue. Leaving the downtown public library’s lovely centennial hall that night, I couldn’t help but wonder if the people who most needed to hear these moving stories and intelligent questions had been in the audience.
Listen to a recorded version of the meeting.
What can Nonprofits do to facilitate change? The Nonprofit Center is holding our Fall Conference on that topic. Save the date for “Sharpening Our Nonprofit Lens: Strengthening Our Collective Resolve to Improve Outcomes for Boys & Men of Color.” October 30th at the Italian Community Center.