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

Felony Records Take Toll on Lives of Black Men

LaToya Dennis

Project Milwaukee: Black Men in Prison begins exploring how prison time affects the men and those around them.Marcus Lee is one of the Milwaukee men struggling to recover after serving time. His schedule includes walking from 4th and Locus on the north side to the city’s near south side.

“Every Tuesday and Friday I walk to 16th and National. And then I catch the bus back,” Lee says.

Last Tuesday, I walked with Marcus Lee-- four miles in the freezing cold. We headed to Interstate Blood Center where Lee's been going twice a week for six years to donate plasma. He says right now, it’s the only income he, his girlfriend and their family earn.

“You get $25 the first time and $35 the second,” Lee says. The blood center pays with debit cards. Lee typically goes to a check-cashing place to get his money, at a cost of $3. “So out of the $25, I’m only left with like $22. And out of the $22, I take $2.25 to get back home. Whatever’s left is what’s left to feed me and three others.” That’s after he spends $8 a week on cigarettes.

Lee says his household also gets around $190 a month in food stamps and burns through the money in two weeks. The 34-year-old says he hasn’t had a job since 2010, but not because he doesn’t want to work, it’s because no one will hire him. He has a felony record. Lee says his first stint in jail came at age 14.

“That was for driving without owners consent, basically that’s called theft. I stole more than just a car. I was on a stealing spree.” Lee says in the beginning, he stole cars and used them to teach himself to drive. He says soon after, it was more about the thrill and the money. He would strip the cars and sell the parts. But Lee says the crime that has impacted him the most wasn’t intentional.

“September 11, 2001, me and my brother decided that we was gone skip school and what we call, well back then what we were saying is we was gone bust two little females down. Have sex with them. Not knowing, not knowing, not asking no age, none of that,” Lee says. It turned out, the girls were underage and Lee was 19. He ended up getting two years in prison.

“Sex offenders will never fit well working in restaurants; I don’t care what you were charged with. You never gone work in a hospital, you never go be a police officer, anyone who commits a crime, you never gone be a police officer. Really, the only job that you are able to possess or get is a factory. But you got to fight with the Mexicans and so many others over those jobs.  So it’s like the only thing you can do is figure out how to survive,” Lee says.

As we walk past foreclosed homes on sidewalks covered with snow and ice, Lee shows me scars on his wrist where he attempted suicide. He says between the ages of 17 and 31 he tried at least 100 times. He says he’s suffered from depression most of his life and now, not being able to support his family, often sends him back to that dark place. “Cause now, I’m letting myself down. But more so, I’m letting my kids down. Cause who gone support them? Who's going to take them to the little famous places they like to go,” Lee adds, places like Chuck E. Cheese.

“That’s where the sadness come in at. I know a lot of people will say well that same question gone always come up, how do you deal with it? I done got back to doing what I used to do, sit back and get drunk. And just look at the wall and just wonder when my time gone come,” Lee says.

Lee says he’s trying not to give up, but every day is a struggle. While he hasn’t been to jail for two years—his longest stint free since being a kid, he feels like he’s at rock bottom. Those feelings are common among black men who’ve spent time in prison, according to Andre Brown. He’s a case manager for Project Return, which helps the men reintegrate into society. Brown also says many sense community rejection.

“They don’t want us to work. They don’t want to give us the jobs so we’re on our own. And if you break that down to a neighborhood issue, now you have a bunch of people that feel like they’re on their own and the whole world is against them. So now we have conflict within the neighborhood on survival. Everybody scratching and clawing for the crumbs that we do have,” Brown says. “This is the most frustrating part.”

Ramel Smith, a psychologist at Children’s Hospital, used to work in the Wisconsin Department of Corrections. “You get these guys who are coming out, they’re programmed up, they’ve been clean, they’re working out, they’re eating healthy, they’re sleeping. When they come out, they’re ready to go and what do they get? They get hit with a world that won’t forget the label that’s stashed upon them,” Smith says.

Smith says he moved from corrections to Children’s, because he wanted to impact kids before they end up in prison. “A lot of our children are being traumatized,” and he says the trauma often presents itself in the choices the boys make as they grow into men. “Of course they have to take accountability. But is all the problem on them? No. We have to look at ourselves as a society.” Smith says if communities were more proactive in identifying boys in need counseling and treatment, they might not end up in prison as men.

As far as Marcus Lee is concerned, he says all he ever wanted was a parent--someone to talk to, to love him and tell him they expected more from him. Even though he never had that, he says he hopes to be a good parent for his children. As far as what his next move will be, Lee says he doesn’t know. He says he can’t get funding to go to school because he needs $800 to bring his previous loans into good standing. Lee says he’d love to start his own business and has a couple ideas but, "if I wanted to approach the government with one of my ideas or make up a business plan. How would I do that? What things would I need to write up a business plan? What is it that each major company looks at? What are they looking for,” Lee asks.

Lee says he’s not asking for handouts, just a little help to get on his feet.

LaToya was a reporter with WUWM from 2006 to 2021.