Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Black Men in Prison: Stories Behind the Statistics


Wisconsin incarcerates black men at staggering rates. WUWM's Susan Bence talks with eight men living the statistics. They are currently serving time at the Milwaukee County House of Correction in Franklin.JARRELL STOVALL, age 29,  grew up on Milwaukee’s north side with his mom and grandmother. He describes his childhood as “normal” until his mom disappeared when he was 17. Stovall says his life spiraled down to raw anger.

“I felt like everybody was against me and any little thing would trigger me. That’s what led to my first incarceration. I end up shooting somebody in the neck. We played basketball together – kind of grew up together,” Stovall says.

He spent two years in prison and has been incarcerated twice since. Now father to two young daughters. He says he wants to give them the childhood he had – no guns or violence.

“I know I’ve got to do better if I’m going to see my kids do well in life. I’m already started – I signed myself up for school. School starts January 24; I’ll be out of here January 16. You’ve got to be focused and you’ve got to have a plan,” Stovall says.

TOMIE ROBERSON, age 47, says by age 10, he knew police by name as he developed a reputation for stealing bikes and smashing lights.

Right now, he’s serving time for three counts of domestic violence. Roberson says he can’t recall a time he didn’t feel out of control.

“When I was a child, I had this same problem. I was always hard-headed and didn’t have any control over what I did or said," Roberson says. "They diagnosed me with bipolar, schizophrenia and anxieties. This was a fact, but they never ever gave me medication. But this year they gave me medication and all of a sudden, I had no problem. I mean I can sit down and listen to a person until they are done – and I’ve never in my life been able to do that."

JAMES TOMBS, age 35, says he grew up happily in a stable family – a stay-at-home mom and hard-working dad - until his parents split up.

“I was about 16. It was a shock to me because I was used to having structure," Tombs says. "Me and my brother stayed with my dad and my mom left with my sister. And it started going downhill from there. Eventually I met some friends – I thought were my friends – who showed me a different life of how I could take care of myself.”

Tombs says he sold and became addicted to cocaine, and has shuffled in and out of prison for 15 years During his most recent prison stint, Tombs thought he might have a chance to break his addiction.

“It was a good program, but it was short," Tombs adds. "I felt rushed through it. For an addict at my level, I need more extensive. Instead when I get out bam! I have to go back to what I know; I don’t have nothing.”

At 35, Tombs has the look of a broken man, but says this time when he’s released he intends to seek help. As if to convince himself, Tombs talks about reaching out to young African American men.

“Let these young brothers see there are options," Tombs says. "People are going to stereotype but you can still get out. It’s up to you.”

For Lake Effect, Susan Bence talks with Paris Billups, Larnal Friend, Deurone Banks, Antowan Flores and James Collins.

Paris Billups and his family

PARIS BILLUPS, age 25, walked into the small visiting room with attitude. He describes himself as an intelligent guy – on the competitive side - who’s had to figure out how to handle anger.

Billups first encounter with the system occurred when he was 15 after he beat up a fellow high school student. A jealousy-induced spat then led to Billups first prison term. While in prison, Billups plugged into anger management courses. After his release, Billups discovered he had more to learn.

His wife had just given birth to their son; Billups wanted to pitch in and pick up baby supplies. That meant plugging into the government WIC program. Billup’s wife’s name, not his, was registered. Billups hit a roadblock with the store manager. Billups physical confrontation landed in him jail for another year and a half.

Right now, he’s in for battery when the mother of his oldest child criticized Billups’ wife on Facebook. Billups says he’s prepared to take on the world and provide for his family. He doesn’t think his record will hold him back.

“You know, it all depends on how you conduct yourself and even with my criminal record, even before this particular situation, I utilized my resume, along with my personality and I was able to get a job in four months after I came out of my second incarceration and I got into school," Billups says. "So it just depends on who you are and how people perceive you and what you do to create that perception.”

LARNAL FRIEND, age 65, paints a far less rosy picture. “My life is practically over with, but these younger dudes; they’re more deadlier, they’re dangerous," he says.

Friend’s frustration teeters at the boiling point throughout our conversation. He’s in the House of Corrections now after decades of being “incarceration free.”

He moved to Milwaukee as a boy with his family from Tennessee. Friend maintains that as a boy, he was intimidated to plead guilty to multiple petty crimes – things like stealing soda pop from a church and cash from a neighborhood restaurant.

Friend says by age 19, he had evolved into a real criminal - hotwiring cars, burglarizing and breakings locks and safes.

That lead to prison time, but Friend says he went on to a “normal life” - raised a family, ran a trucking business. His “dusty” felony record came back to haunt him last year. Friend was found guilty of possessing a gun. He says it belonged to an acquaintance. Friend insists he was forced to pick it up, when his son’s dog attacked him.

Deurone Banks

DEURONE BANKS, age 38, is serving nine months for being “attached” to a firearm he says wasn’t his. Banks was visiting his mom at the time.

“The police came to my mothers house and had a search warrant for drugs," Banks says. "They didn’t find any. The gun was registered in my mom’s name; just because I was in the same room, I was charged with felony with possession, because I’ve got this felony under my name for failure to support.”

Banks acknowledges he made some bad decisions after graduating from Custer High School and before he got backed up paying child support; he smoked marijuana and racked up a pile of driving violations. At twenty years of age, Banks was incarcerated in northern Wisconsin.

“Fourteen months up north with killers, real killers and you’re in there because you couldn’t find a job," Banks says. "And someone next to you actually killed somebody, it really messes you up mentally.”

Since then, Banks’ been in and out of jail. He has worked a string of temp positions over the years. He says it was hard to hold a decent-paying job, when you’re repeatedly hauled off to jail.

Banks says for the last couple of years he’s been on course. He and his uncle started a home improvement business that’s waiting for his release. Banks says he’s providing for his three kids – ages 9 to 16.

Antowan Flores and his fiancee Dionne Mcallister

ANTOWAN FLORES, age 39, set his life’s trajectory as a teenager growing up in a drug and gang infested north side Milwaukee neighborhood. While his three siblings emerged successfully on solid ground, Flores says he wanted to fit in.

“I sold drugs, smoked marijuana. I used to drink," Flores says. "When I was 16, there was a liquor store near my house. They thought I was older and I’d buy 40 ounces of beer and I’d sit on the corner drinking with the older guys. A lot of people were on crack cocaine; I was just one of the lucky few that didn’t go that route.”

Flores ended up in jail at 19 – for driving a stolen care and weapons possession charges. He says – at the time - incarceration suited him fine. By the time he hit his mid 20s, be’d been back three time, and he didn’t mind.

“We used to be able to walk the yard whenever we wanted, just had to sign a piece of paper, Flores says. "We smoked our cigarettes, go to the canteen. We had microwaves and hot water there. It was sort of like a home away from home, you just had the guards telling you what you can do and what you can’t do. But as all as you lived under their rules, it was pretty much like being at home.”

Flores says he started to wake up when his mother told, if he went back to prison, she was going to stop visiting.

“I think that opened my eyes, because sitting in prison without getting mail and having no one come to visit, it seemed like being in there by yourself, like a lot of people now," Flores says. "Even here at the House of Correction, there are a lot of people who don’t get visits or mail or have no place to go when they get out. They’re stuck here. I had to open my eyes and ask myself, 'is this the life I want to live for the rest of my life' and I chose not to live like this any more.”

By the age of 32, Flores says he’d successfully launched a home remodeling business.. So why at 39, is he at the House of Corrections? Flores violated a restraining order he didn’t even know existed. Flores says as a younger man he would have lashed out. Not this time.

“I’m grown up now, so I accept my responsibility and am serving the six months the judge ordered me to serve," Flores says.

JAMES COLLINS, age 41, was release from the Milwaukee County House of Corrections by the time this story aired. When we spoke, the Milwaukee resident was wrapping up a 65 day sentence for “driving after revocation."

“Driving with no license, but it stemmed from being arrested for driving while I had been drinking; all this stemmed from that," Collins explains.

Collins was raised by his mom in Beloit, Wisconsin. When he was 15, she died. Her loss devastated Collins.

“I don’t know what else to says, she was my everything," Collins says. "She was my first teacher, the person who listened to me and gave me advise and told me not to do certain things, and why not to do them.”

He moved in with his dad – a person Collins barely knew and who was in and out of prison.

“From about age 15 to 18, I would say I kind of raised myself," Collins says. "I went to prison when I was 20 years old. Like I said, I'm making my own decisions and choices and obviously not all of them were the right ones.”

He was incarcerated for battery, fighting people, ‘just not doing what was right.’

Collins calls the experience “uneventful.” He finished his GED, received job training – even earned $4,000 to help transition to his life after prison. He never returned. Yet, Collins describes most of those years in between as chaotic. He’s worked pretty consistently, but never stayed with one job very long.

Now Collins claims he intends to abandon “chaos” and strive for calm. He thinks the bindery job he’d held for a record nine months before being sentenced will be waiting him.

Collins missed his 9 year old daughter’s birthday, so Collins planned to take her to the Zoo the day after his release – by bus.

“I think I’m still trying to get to that place, where I think [my mom would] be content and happy with the way I am, or the way things are going for me," Collins says. "I’m on my way, but for me, I don’t believe I’ve gotten there yet.”

Susan Bence entered broadcasting in an untraditional way. After years of avid public radio listening, Susan returned to school and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She interned for WUWM News and worked with the Lake Effect team, before being hired full-time as a WUWM News reporter / producer.