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Decades In Prison To Community Outreach: Article Highlights Two Milwaukee Friends’ Journey To Do Better

Hamid Abd-Al-Jabbar
Carlos Javier Ortiz for The Trace and The Guardian
(Left) Hamid Abd-Al-Jabbar as a teenager prior to his first prison sentence. (Right) Hamid and his wife, Desilynn Smith, doing outreach work for the city during the pandemic.

Wisconsin’s penal system incarcerates Black men at a higher rate than any other state — a fact reporter Champe Barton is well aware of through his work covering community violence and the gun industry for The Trace. However, he recently took a more personal approach to this statistic by writing an article profiling two men from Milwaukee.

"To Shed a Cage," published by The Trace in partnership with The Guardian, tells the story of two friends: Hamid Abd-Al-Jabbar and David Thompson. The pair first met and bonded in juvenile detention in the 1980s and spent the next 40 years in and out of Wisconsin prisons together.

Barton says when they emerged from one of the country’s most unforgiving state penal systems, they found their friendship played an important role in finding a footing while navigating life after prison and giving back to their community they once hurt.

Barton came to know of their story when he was reporting on how COVID-19 was impacting violence prevention work last year. Barton was speaking to Jabbar, who Barton says had a "gregarious, bubbly personality," about his work with 414LIFE. At the end of one of their initial conversations, Jabbar mentioned that he had served 27 years in prison for a number of crimes, including a homicide.

"I've done this kind of reporting for a long enough time that I know that these kinds of crimes are more often crimes of circumstance rather than they are crimes of any sort personal evil. So you shouldn't be able to detect a murderer or something on the phone, but regardless you have this impression of someone when you first talking to them and it kind of just jarred me a little bit that he had at one point in his life done something that seemed to incongruent with the person I was talking with on the phone," Barton explains.

As soon as Barton started speaking with Jabbar's client David Thompson, he discovered the men were longtime friends who went from committing crimes together when they were 13 to working on bettering themselves and their community in their 50s.

"I just remember thinking at that moment, 'OK, I got to do a story about these guys, they have a really compelling story,'" says Barton.

The article was originally going to be about the intertwined narratives of these two men's lives, but Barton says that felt incomplete. Upon researching more about Milwaukee's high rate of Black male incarceration and community supervision, he realized that Jabbar and Thompson's lives in and out of prison were greatly impacted by Wisconsin's changes in the criminal justice system. Barton says it had "morphed dramatically from [rehabilitation in] the early '70s to present day," which is more tough-on-crime sentencing.

"Obviously these guys are making their own decisions and there's this element of personal accountability to what they're doing. They have agency in their lives, but at the same time they're being like sort of buffeted about by these other forces that they have no control over," he explains. "I noticed that the changes in that system happened really in parallel with the major development points of these two men's lives."

Photo courtesy of Desilynn Smith for The Trace and The Guardian
Jabbar (right), Thompson (left), and their friend, Ali (center), celebrating Ali’s wedding.

As Barton worked with Jabbar and Thompson, he says he was struck by how both of them were "clearly trying to leave a certain part of them behind and do better, or at least try to convert some of that harm they had caused into something positive for the city."

Working for 414LIFE had been a recent development in Jabbar's life, but Barton says Jabbar's, as well as Thompson's commitment was clear. "It definitely impressed on me that both of them were consistently optimistic about their ability to make something new for themselves," he says.

Working for 414LIFE was fulfilling, yet difficult for Jabbar to deal with. Tragically, he died of an overdose using heroin laced with fentanyl in February of 2021, an addiction he struggled with ever since he first started selling drugs when he was younger.

"I didn't know about his struggle with drug use until after he passed. ... And so it made sense that a lot of his setbacks in life were sort of paired with setbacks in his ability to rehabilitate from drug use, which is something, that to my knowledge, he never had assistance with in the prison system," Barton explains.

"I think that part of that survivor's guilt and shame for having contributed to a problem of that scale and degree was at least part of the reason why [Jabbar] had sort of turned back to that habit, and it just unfortunately ended that way," he adds.

Barton hopes that people who learn about Jabbar and Thompson's stories will think twice before passing blanket judgements on people who are or have been incarcerated, and learn more about the circumstances that got them there.

"People have this tendency to be like, ‘Oh well, these people need to be punished for these crimes.’ But something that sources always tell me who live in these cities, and work in these cities and love their community members in these cities is like if your needs are met, you’re not gonna do that sort of stuff," says Barton.

"... We should make a better effort to understand what those reasons are before we craft policy that effects thousands and thousands and thousands of people every year," he adds. "I think that it's reasonable to say that with a criminal legal system that was more oriented around rehabilitation or had at least had incorporated more rehabilitation oriented stuff earlier on, that some of the problems that these two men faced may have been avoided."

Audrey Nowakowski is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
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