Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Project Milwaukee: In-depth reporting on vital issues in the region.

Violence Across the Generations

We continue to discuss the causes and possible solutions to youth violence in our community. Today we explore the possible generational connection between violent parents and their children.

Twenty women dressed in loose-fitting, green slacks and jackets are walking slowly across Taycheedah’s lush grounds. They’re heading for the chapel.

This is Wisconsin’s maximum security women’s prison, located outside of Fond du Lac.

Makisha Biles drove up from Milwaukee to talk with moms.

“I’m the child recruitment specialist at Big Brothers Big Sisters,” Biles says.

Big Brothers Big Sisters is putting a lot of energy into matching children of incarcerated parents with mentors they call “Bigs.”

“Seven out of 10 children who have a parent incarcerated has a possibility of becoming incarcerated themselves,” Biles says.

So Biles visits the prison in hopes of ending that cycle.

She says, when kids are given the chance to develop a healthy relationship with a caring adult, it improves the odds that they won’t follow in their incarcerated parent’s footprints.

Sheila didn’t beat those odds. She’s an incarcerated mother.

“This is my third incarceration,” Sheila says.

She started selling drugs when she was 13.

“I was stemming from what I was brought up in, that came from my mother,” Sheila says.

She blames herself though. Sheila had a good job rehabbing houses, children she loved. Still she couldn’t beat the drug problem. Sheila seems to well up with guilt when she talks about it.

“Relapsing, not being there enough for my children, back in the penitentiary. Look I’m 40 years old, there’s no way I should be in here,” Sheila says.

Now, her son is incarcerated. He’s 22 years old.

“I, I stabbed the victim.”

That’s Sharon, another Taycheedah inmate.

She worries about her son too. He’s been following Sharon’s path in and out of jail.

“Maybe it’ll be for the best the way he’s living his life, if he end up in prison that will save his life. But I want for my daughters to learn from my experience, to not to go there to stay in school, stay focused. To live a better life than I’ve lived,” Sharon says.

For Johanna, it took two prison terms to wake up. She’s a single mother of four. Each has a different father.

“I had a mother, but she was never there for me as a child. I was gang banging at the age of eight, smoked marijuana at the age of 10 and from there. I had my first child when I was 14 and since 14, I’ve been on my own,” Johanna says.

Johanna spent her life selling and using drugs, but says, her kids are on the right path, despite the fact that their fathers have also served prison time.

“I mostly think, honestly, it the Big Brothers cause they keep them out of trouble. When my daughter has a problem, she calls Kelly,” Johanna says.

Kelly is a Big Sister.

I meet her and Johanna’s daughter Cassie, back in Milwaukee, at an Eastside pizza place. They hang out together at least once a week, talking, walking Kelly’s dog or sharing a meal.

“We were just having a conversation. She said she walked away from a fight at school,” Kelly says.

And Cassie, just about to turn 13, feels good about it. She has a hard time controlling her anger, but today….

“I don’t know, I felt like the bigger person,” Cassie says.

Cassie’s older brother, Felix, struggles keeping his cool at school too. He’s been suspended more than once.

Felix says his mom motivates him to succeed in life. She tells him to stay focused, to be ready for anything.

“To tell the truth, the toughest part, I haven’t been around my mom a lot, because she’s been locked up before, in my past life. It’s kind of hard, going without my mom,” Felix says.

He also has to live without his dad, who disappeared when Felix was six. After being bounced around, Felix lives with a foster mom who feels like family to him. And Felix has a Big Brother, who spends a lot of time with him.

“The best part of my life is I’ve got a roof over my head. I’m grateful that just, people care for me,” Felix says.

His Big Brother Rob says he’s seen Felix watch out for his younger cousins and siblings.

“I don’t think he realizes how much he’s taken on and how much he’s doing and how much he means. To kind of be a role model for those kids, I think he’s pretty incredible,” Rob says.

Rob says, when Felix is treated with respect and trust, he shines.

Neither Felix nor Cassie knows for sure when they’re mom will be released from prison. They’re even less sure if they’ll live together when she does.

But their mom, Johanna says she wants to be a good role model for her kids. Last year, when she earned her high school diploma, she took a picture of herself for her kids. When they’re having a hard time, Johanna says she hopes they’ll look at it and remember, if mom can do it, I can do it.