By Dylan Deprey
There were plenty of questions asked during the 2017 Ex-Prisoners Organizing (EXPO) of Milwaukee Community Forum.
“Why should the Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility be closed?”
“Are addiction programs simply a slap on the wrist?”
“How can a formerly incarcerated man not get sent back to jail every time his girlfriend is mad at him?”
As the crowd chuckled, it was a completely serious question concerning crimeless revocations and Milwaukee’s hand in Wisconsin’s mass incarceration issue.
The 2017 EXPO of Milwaukee Community Forum invited the community to discuss its work to end mass incarceration at the Wisconsin Black Historical Society on April 29, 2017.
EXPO is a project of WISDOM, a statewide organization that links faith-based communities to work for justice.
Earl Ingram MC’d the forum, and broadcasted the event for a special Saturday edition on the Earl Ingram Show on 1510 AM. The three-hour event held three panels consisting of EXPO members, attorneys and community organizers.
Kimberly Donald, EXPO member, said she had been incarcerated for 6½ years, and has been trying to get her family back together for the last 2½ years.
“I felt I needed to help the inmates that were coming home back into their communities,” Donald said.
She described a story about her nephew who was recently revocated for showing up late to meeting because he had to help his mother who had had a stroke.
“The professor slammed the door right in his face and said, ‘Go talk to your parole officer,’” Donald said.
Revocations, like Donald’s nephew, are rule violations of supervision for those on parole, probation or extended supervision. In 2015, 2,954 people in Wisconsin were put back behind bars without a new conviction and were imprisoned for an average of 1.5 years.
“Nearly every person that goes into the prison system will eventually come out and it’s important we give people an opportunity to succeed when they get out. It’s going to make communities safer and stronger when we’re investing in the success of formerly incarcerated people,” said Mark Rice, EXPO of Wisconsin State Director.
Rice has been with EXPO since its beginnings in 2014. He along with many EXPO members have experienced the life-changing slap to the face that is revocation.
Rice was diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, and following an episode with MPD, he was charged him with disorderly conduct. He was later cleared by a judge and jury of his peers, yet his parole officer finalized the paperwork and sent him to MSDF for six months.
“The conditions are inhumane,” Rice said. “It’s a very difficult place to do time in.”
EXPO has made it a mission to close MSDF following the death of EXPO leader, James Wilborn, due to heat exhaustion.
MSDF was built in 2001 as a holding place for people with sanctions, and would only hold people at-most 120 days. Since it opened its doors, MSDF has morphed into a fullfledged prison and detention facility.
Rice said inmates were often bunked three to a two-person cell for 22 to 23 hours a day. They experienced extreme heat due to poor ventilation, and were not able to go or see outside.
During his time in MSDF, he said there were huge racial disparities, and would sometimes would be the only white person in a 50- person unit.
Although only 6.6 percent of Wisconsin identifies as black, 40 percent of people sent back to prison due to revocation without new conviction are black.
“This country has a race problem, it has an equity problem and Wisconsin magnifies those ten-fold,” said Rev. Willie Briscoe, WISDOM president. “The only thing that’s going to work is restoring human beings back to their rightful dignity and to have some type of rehabilitation within the system.”
Sarah Ferber, EXPO Chippewa Falls, explained how Eau Claire has four alternative treatment courts. There is Drug, Alternatives to Incarcerating Mothers (AIM), Mental Health and Chippewa Valley Veterans courts.
“Oftentimes people feel it’s the easy way out or like a slap on the wrist, and that is absolutely not true,” Ferber said. “The things that you have to complete in order to graduate from a treatment drug program teach you how to be a productive member of society again. You’re dealing with your addiction issues, trauma issues and family issues and through that and through support from the team you’re ultimately able to make a 180 turn.”
Though the forum ended with a better understanding of incarceration, it also etched the giant steps needed to change the current system.