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Project Milwaukee: In-depth reporting on vital issues in the region.

The Role Poverty, Violence and Despair Play in Black Male Incarceration


Analysts and advocates say a wide variety of social and cultural factors contribute to the high rate of African American male incarceration in Wisconsin.

In Milwaukee County, more than half the men in their thirties have served time.

WUWM spoke with several men who are paying close attention to the issue: Milwaukee Ald. Joe Davis, Project RETURN Executive Director WendelHruska and the Rev. Willie Brisco, president of MICAH (Milwaukee Inner-City Congregations Allied for Hope).

They told us there are common threads among the black male prison population, such as poverty.

Ald. Davis says poverty can manifest itself in a variety of ways. For instance, in a community with high poverty and few job opportunities, Davis says someone might be more likely to sell drugs to earn quick cash. Or, Davis says parents may be working so many hours to make ends meet, that there’s not adequate supervision at home to prevent children from making bad decisions, such as joining a gang in order to feel safe.

“It is not an excuse, but it is a fact that given one’s social conditions they turn to certain things for survival. And so some of it has been self-inflicted -- there’s no doubt about it -- there’s some who have made bad choices, and there are some systemic problems, historical problems that from generations to generation, things have passed on,” Davis says.

Davis traces the situation back a few decades, to when Milwaukee began to lose many of the industrial jobs that attracted many families to the city, decades earlier.

“When Milwaukee was very much an industrial town, fathers and mothers were able to go to work at factories or the foundries to make honest living, and then the children actually had those parents to emulate, because they saw their parents go to work every day. When Milwaukee's economy started to become strained and it became a global economy nationwide, we saw some of those jobs leave. We also lost a part of a solution to our community and we never got it back,” Davis says.

WendelHruska is with Project RETURN, a group that helps men returning from prison reintegrate into the community. He says there’s another major reason many men end up in trouble with the law: they have unmet mental heath needs.

“They’re misdiagnosed as an alcohol and drug abuse issue, but we’re never really dealing with the underlying current of things that are causing the drug and alcohol abuse, the depressions, the PTSD -- post-traumatic stress disorder -- those types of things lead an individual down a substance abuse path,” Hruska says.

Hruska says many problems are cyclical: people get into the criminal justice system, then have a hard time digging themselves out.

“There’s no real ability of finding a job, of thinking anybody’s going to give you a second chance, so why even try. And so people go back to what they know, what they’re going to do to survive, and unfortunately that has gotten them in trouble in the past, and continues to get them in trouble in the future,” Hruska says.

While such factors can affect men of any race, Hruska and Davis say the issues may have a disproportionate impact on African Americans, because poverty, crime and a lack of job opportunities are the highest in Milwaukee's black neighborhoods.

The Rev. Willie Brisco of MICAH says hope is lacking in many central city families, from one generation to the next.

“When you have this mass incarceration, you are going to see shattered families, boys who have no men in their life to look up to and actually model themselves after,” Brisco says.

Brisco adds that many black youth grow up with the belief that they'll end up spending some time in prison.

“Look at back at the early days of these ‘Scared Straight' programs, where you could tell the child this (prison) is where you’re going to wind up. Now it becomes a badge of honor almost, and it is so common that it’s a right of passage,” Brisco says.

The conversation with Brisco, Hruska and Davis is part of WUWM’s ongoing series, Project Milwaukee: Black Men in Prison.

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