By Srijan Sen
On Friday, September 12, a distinguished panel of guests and academics gathered at the Helen Bader Foundation in downtown Milwaukee to discuss the economic and social issues faced by incarcerated men and women in the state of Wisconsin.
The panel included Kalan Haywood, founder and president of Vangard Group; Leroy Maclin, online sales director for Milwaukee Working; Lois Quinn, senior scientist researching employment and training at UW-Milwaukee; Heather Ramirez, executive director of Centro legal and Jerry Robertson, program officer for the Helen Bader Foundation.
The group sought to delve into the reasons for mass incarceration, aftereffect on families, access to education, political participation and employment opportunities for those currently or formally incarcerated.
The event started off with spoken word from Milwaukee based poets Muhibb Dyer and Kwabena Nixon. In the United States, a staggering seven million people are serving time in correctional facilities.
Approximately 1.1 million in federal prisons, 700,000 in county jails, 840,000 on parole and four million on probation. Other nations that mirror the U.S prison population are Russia, Ukraine and Rwanda. According to Quinn, Milwaukee is at the epicenter of this social epidemic.
“We have the worst incarceration in the state,” said Quinn. “There is a whole community built around incarceration.”
Eighty percent of prison population comprises of African-American males. According to Harvard sociologist Bruce Western, one in eight African-American males has been incarcerated. Serving prison time has become part of daily life in the African-American community.
Western has done extensive research on life before and after incarceration in the United States. He estimates African-Americans with a high-school degree are five times more likely to be incarcerated than those with a college degree; however, 35 percent of African- American males under the age of 35 drop out of high school.
In Milwaukee County, more than half of the African-American males in their 30’s and 40’s are incarcerated in state correctional facilities.
A significant social outcome of mass incarceration is the male deficit in a nuclear family. Western’s research shows a quarter of kids in the 90’s experiencing parental incarceration. According to Western, boys with incarcerated fathers tend to do poorly.
The criminal justice program in this nation has existed in its current form for a couple of decades, but the full force of the penal system only came down on a small group of people.
As citizenship got smaller in America, a deep gap in legitimacy left minorities with a lack of faith in the enforcers of law – police and courts.
However, Quinn is hopeful for change. She believes the leadership effort will come from within the African-American community with grassroots organizations such as Milwaukee Working. Leroy Maclin said the nonprofit aims at creating jobs in the heart of the impoverished city with hopes of building a skilled labor force capable of obtaining employment.
Life with a criminal record is rough in the United States.
A criminal stigma prevents individuals with a record from securing active employment. A black man with a prison record has to search three times more than a white man without a record; with the small chance that every other aspect is equal.
Panelist Kalan Haywood Sr. shared a story of hope and courage. Haywood was stopped by the police, and found guilty of possessing cocaine and an illegal firearm.
He was sentenced to serve correctional time, something Haywood claims saved his life. After being released, Haywood strived to become an ideal citizen but ended up being shot 13 times on Lisbon Ave. He could have returned to a life of crime, but Haywood chose to pursue higher education at UW-Milwaukee and went on to become the founder and president of Vangard Group.
“Most of the men in my family are criminals,” said Haywood Sr. “You can never judge people at first glance.”
Access to resources, as Quinn pointed out, is another disadvantage faced by African-American men in the city of Milwaukee. More than 27,000 black men have suspended or revoked licenses due to minor traffic violations.
Quinn strongly advocated for driver’s education classes to be offered in Milwaukee Public School’s. She suggested a legislative review of the public availability of criminal records after time served.
“Time served should count as a fresh start,” said Quinn.
Western finds incarceration to be a process of dehumanization and active segregation from the citizenry.
Incarceration in America is invisible, cumulative and intergenerational, a vicious cycle that can be broken through an active re-imagination of citizenship.
“A conversation can help change something,” said Western.
“A conversation can only be started when there is a deeper understanding of poverty in America.”