By Devin Blake
This story was originally published by Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, where you can find other stories reporting on fifteen city neighborhoods in Milwaukee. Visit milwaukeenns.org.
In Milwaukee, there is no formal reentry program or organization specific to LGBTQ+ people who have been incarcerated.
But various individuals throughout Milwaukee are doing what they can to fill this gap.
Reentry programs provide a range of resources and services for people “reentering” society after incarceration and are crucial in decreasing rates of recidivism, or returning to incarceration after some period of release.
High rates of reincarceration
According to 2018 data from the Wisconsin Department of Corrections, roughly 36% of people in Milwaukee County are reincarcerated within three years of release.
Employment, health care and housing are “the principal needs” of people reentering society and are key to lowering rates of recidivism, said Conor Williams, economic policy analyst with the Public Policy Institute at Community Advocates, an organization that provides services for low-income residents.
Williams facilitates the Milwaukee Reentry Council, which works to coordinate reentry resources on a county level.
A vulnerable group
There are “certainly gaps currently in providing those services or getting people who have been previously incarcerated connected with those things,” Williams said.
Although the need for these resources is common to those reentering, LGBTQ+ people who were incarcerated experience additional hurdles.
According to a 2022 report by the Safety and Justice Challenge, LGBTQ+ individuals who have experience in the criminal justice system face “heightened discrimination and exclusion from employment, education, and other opportunities because of their records, leading to continued homelessness, unemployment and poverty.”
In other words, LGBTQIA+ individuals face the twin hurdles of biases against people who have been incarcerated and biases against people who are LGBTQIA+.
LGBTQIA is an acronym for lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, intersex and asexual/aromantic.
Daniel Krajewski said it was challenging to reenter society after being incarcerated for over five years.
“Because it’s even harder for us (LGBTQIA+ people) to get housing, financials and everything else that runs side by side to that,” he said.
Lisa Mitchell, incarcerated for over nine years, said she experienced direct discrimination from her probation and parole agent after her release.
“I had an agent who was not friendly to my transgender expression,” she said. “And I had to endure him telling me ‘You got to dress like a man,’ and so he was more goal-oriented towards trying to reform me as far as what he felt I should express and not, you know, really focused on me being a productive member of the community.”
Both Krajewski and Mitchell have become organizers with Black and Pink Milwaukee, which advocates for LGBTQIA+ people who are incarcerated.
The people who are stepping in
“Internal champions” are helping to fill the gaps in Milwaukee’s reentry infrastructure, said Jeanne Geraci, executive director of the Benedict Center, a nonprofit organization that provides programs to women affected by the criminal justice system.
Wendel Hruska, executive director of Project RETURN (Returning Ex-incarcerated People To Urban Realities and Neighborhoods), is one such champion.
“About three or four years ago,” Hruska said, “I had a conversation with a person who I’d known for many years … and who identifies as non-binary. And they brought it to my attention that our website and our materials weren’t very inclusive, which is something we’ve always strived to be … . And I was unaware of the language we were using and how it was pushing people away versus bringing people to us.”
One of Project RETURN’s signature services is its “circles of support” – support groups tailored to the needs of specific demographics of people who have been formerly incarcerated. Some current circles include one for women and one for Muslims, but no circle yet exists for LGBTQIA+ people.
Hruska said he plans to make this happen.
Another champion is Tiodolo De La Garza III, partnership and crisis support manager at the Milwaukee Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center.
With his own history of incarceration, De La Garza said he has first-hand understanding of the obstacles faced by those who are LGBTQIA+ and have been incarcerated. After his release, for example, he was homeless for a time.
“We get letters almost every day from someone in some prison or in some facility somewhere,” Ricardo Galaviz, associate director at the LGBT Center, said. “They’re either reaching out because they’re experiencing severe injustice … or they’re reaching out just because they want someone to talk to and they’re just looking to connect with anybody.”
For more information
• Meeting agendas and other related information about the Milwaukee Reentry Council can be found at its website.
•There are various ways of supporting current projects and goals of Black and Pink Milwaukee.
• Those with questions about reentry resources for LGBTQIA+ people can call or text De La Garza at 414-736-5761.
• Project RETURN can be called at 414-374-8029.
• Information about programming at the Benedict Center can be found at its website.