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

Impact of High Black Male Incarceration Rate Reaches Across State

LaToya Dennis

While Milwaukee is the epicenter when it comes to the number of black men who’ve served time in Wisconsin’s prisons, it's not the only community feeling the pain. A drive around Racine with people who know the area reveals a lot. For instance, on Villa Street, many of the houses need paint and new roofs, and there's trash on the ground.

Yusuf Buckley works with the Racine Interfaith Coalition and is involved in a campaign to reduce Wisconsin’s prison population. He says most of the people living in the neighborhood are not homeowners and quite a few of the black men here have served time.

“If this was a 60 or 70 degree day you would see everybody outside standing on the corners probably drinking liquor, smoking weed, playing their music loud. It’s just a little bit too cold right now for the people to be out,” Buckley says.

According to a UWM study, Wisconsin incarcerates more black males than any other state and more than 2,000 of them come from Racine. A lot of them don’t need a prison cell but rather treatment for addictions or mental health problems, according to Betty Brenneman. She also belongs to the Interfaith Coalition. Brenneman says the situation in Racine has wide-ranging affects, and for everyone in the state.

“We pay for it in lack of cultural richness. We pay for it in money; we pay for it in a sense of fear for a lot of people that are afraid to go into communities,” Brenneman says.

“If you put enough ripples in that same pond it’s gone create a wave. If you create enough waves, you're going to create a tsunami. If you do that, it's going to affect everybody who has a border or shore that's connected to that body of water, says Jameel Ghauri, executive director of the George Bray Neighborhood Center. It’s located in the thick of a low income Racine block where many men have been to prison. The center provides activities and life skills.

Ghauri says the issues Wisconsin needs to deal with, to reduce its black male prison problem, are moral not criminal.

Republican state Sen. Paul Farrow represents parts of Dodge, Waukesha and Washington counties. They are not home to many black men who’ve gone to prison, yet Farrow says the numbers in urban neighborhoods affect his constituents in the pocketbook, and they want to know the state is putting their tax dollars to good use.

“We have to look at how we’re making sure that Milwaukee doesn’t have an adverse effect on the rest of the state. You look at how much money is sent out from other districts, there are what you can call giver and taker counties. There are counties that dollar for dollar get less back as they put in, and Waukesha County is one of those,” Farrow says.

Farrow says the men Wisconsin incarcerates are typically uneducated and draw on the system while in prison and out.

Upstate, many residents take a hard line on offenders, according Father Steve Brice. He’s pastor of three Roman Catholic parishes in Clarke County. “Politically, rural Wisconsin is quite Republican and the hard on crime philosophy is very strong here,” Brice says. He says people in his region are not necessarily in tune with injustices or issues that could lead black men into trouble.

Back in Racine, Jameel Ghauri sees societal divides. “We don’t look at ourselves as one. We look at ourselves as them and us. Us means we’re united in spirit. Them means it’s those who I want to have nothing to do with because they’re opposite of me. They don’t believe like I do,” Ghauri says.

Ghauri says President Obama appropriately named his new program to lift up boys and men of color, My Brother’s Keeper.

LaToya was a reporter with WUWM from 2006 to 2021.