By Dylan Deprey
There were vivid memories of torture and mental suffering. There were pleas for help and understanding. Ultimately, there were comments on the stigma that has been tattooed onto ex-convicts in our society today.
Victims, ex-convicts and the community joined for the first major public event hosted by Milwaukee EXPO (EX-Prisoners Organizing). The community packed the chairs of the Wisconsin Black Historical Society Tuesday June 28.
EXPO is a statewide network of around 80 formerly incarcerated people around Wisconsin to fight against the unjust punishment system and mass incarceration. EXPO is a project of the faith-based organization WISDOM and was created in 2014.
“People with records have the potential to become a powerful group in the United States with one out of every three adults having a conviction or arrest history,” said EXPO co-organizer Mark Rice.
The panels consisted of mothers with convicted sons and were also victims of violence who shared their stories of love and loss.
There were members of EXPO, some of who had been in solitary confinement for years on end, and others recently released shared their struggles to stay positive in an environment that has kept those who have been locked up as a shackled member of society.
Journal Sentinel writer and forum moderator, James Causey noted the social mentality around those who have been incarcerated.
“We tend to think of prisoners as external members of society and that is where we start to go wrong with this because millions of prisoners are getting out of jails and prisons every year. Essentially the prisoners today are our neighbors tomorrow,” Causey said.
Panel member, Carl Fields had recently been released after a 16-year stint in March of 2016. Fields joined EXPO a couple of weeks after being released. He noted that finding a job or housing was not the most discouraging part of his post-prison life.
“What I have been discouraged by is just the way with which a person from prison is perceived, especially those trying to come make a difference in the community,” Fields said.
The issues of solitary confinement were brought amongst the panel. It had sparked memories of mental distress from the conditions said to be like, “basically living in a bathroom.”
James Watkins told his memories of reading in his bed, which was the bathtub, and listening to all of the sounds. People yelling and cursing to whomever will listen. Others could be cutting their arms or try and hang themselves. Some prisoners were allowed nothing, some a book and a radio or TV was a luxury.
“Sometimes you just get up and somebody calls at you and its two o’clock in the morning and just asks you to talk to them,” Watkins said. “Then the next morning they talk to you and they say ‘I’m glad you talked to me because I was going to hang myself last night.’”
Panelist, Sister Linda Muhammad said that having been a stay-at-home mom she had known her sons personalities very well. She noted her eldest son’s mental transformation after leaving prison.
“When stressful things happen I can still see the damage come out,” Muhammad said. “Paranoia, distrust just this kind of a hardness towards people and things.”
Sheryl McFarland’s brother was in solitary confinement 35 of the 40 years he has been in prison. While some were more severe then others, her brother said that officers could hold inmates in solitary confinement longer by writing false or skewed reports.
Watkins said that he kept his sanity by reading around one thousand nonfiction books while in solitary confinement.
“Physical scars heal over time, psychological scars never heal,” Watkins said.