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WUWM & MPTV Special SeriesWhy are so many Wisconsinites behind bars?And, what are the costs?In the 2010 Census, Wisconsin had the highest percentage of incarcerated black men in the nation. One out of every eight black men of working age is behind bars. In Milwaukee County, more than half of African American men in their thirties have served time in prison.Over the course of six months, WUWM and MPTV explored Wisconsin's high rate of black male incarceration, through expert analysis and personal stories.Why is the rate so high?How does imprisonment affect the men and their futures, as well as their families, neighborhoods and the region's economy?What are possible solutions?Contribute Your IdeasDo you have questions you'd like to have answered? Stories you'd like to share? Please share your questions and comments with us.

Black Men in Prison Series: What We've Learned So Far


In preparation for Tuesday night's town hall forum, WUWM reviews the causes and impact of Wisconsin's high rate of black male incarceration.

It’s a subject WUWM and Milwaukee Public Television have been reporting on for the last six months.
The town hall forum will take place Tuesday, May 20, from 6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. in downtown Milwaukee, in Centennial Hall of the Milwaukee Public Library. Reserve your spot for this special event.


Poverty, joblessness
Poverty and unemployment contribute to the high rate of black male incarceration, especially in Milwaukee’s central city. Milwaukee Ald. Joe Davis says the city never recovered from its loss of industrial jobs a few decades ago. Davis says in neighborhoods with few job opportunities, some people are more likely to turn to crime, such as selling drugs, to earn quick cash. “It’s not an excuse, but it is a fact that given one’s social conditions, they turn to certain things for survival,” Davis says.

State laws

In the 1990s, as crack cocaine made inroads in Wisconsin, state lawmakers approved policies such as mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, and Truth in Sentencing, which eliminated parole. Both drove up the prison rate.

Too many people locked up, who shouldn’t be?

Advocates for a lower prison population argue the state locks up too many people, who would be better off in the community. Retired pastor Joe Ellwanger has been working on the 11x15 campaign, which seeks to cut the prison population in half by 2015. The effort is organized by WISDOM, a coalition of faith groups throughout the state. Ellwanger wants Wisconsin to follow Minnesota’s lead. “Minnesota has its prison rate down to less than half of what Wisconsin’s is. They deal with low risk persons who have underlying drug addictions -- and that’s the root of the crime -- they send them to treatment in the community rather than to prison, and Wisconsin could do the same thing,” Ellwanger says.


Kids caught up in a cycle of crime and incarceration

Workers at the COA Goldin Center on 24th and Burleigh say most of the kids they serve come from single-parent homes. Some of the boys in those homes lack positive role models, making them more likely to get into trouble. Quintrell Boyles, who works with teens at the center, says children don’t think about long-term consequences of their behavior, because they’re overwhelmed by their current desperate circumstances. “What we’re looking at is a population that’s worried about the gun violence in my neighborhood, will I make it home tonight? What will I eat? A population of kids that’s worried about the temperature’s dropped below 50 degrees and I only have a hoodie to wear to school. And these are things that overshadow what they might be thinking about happening 10 years from now,” Boyles says.

Prison records can haunt former inmates

When inmates are nearing the end of their sentence, and are preparing to reenter the community, they may find their record leaves them with limited job options. State Rep. Mandela Barnes of Milwaukee says one person’s struggles end up affecting the whole community. “There is so much they’re not able to do, they’re not able to be productive, they’re not going to pass a background check, there’s not much that’s available to them, they’re not going to be able to be taxpayers, they aren’t going to be able to generate revenue for the state. And I think the biggest piece is going to be the cycle of crime that’s created because the opportunity that’s taken away,” Barnes says.

Families, neighborhoods devastated

Men who are in prison often have wives, children, parents and others at home, who feel their absence acutely. Some of the family members and friends struggle to come up with the time -- or gas money -- to visit men who are housed in prisons throughout the state. A number of Milwaukee neighborhoods have former inmates, or homes where someone is incarcerated, on every block. The 53206 zip code is where the concentration is the highest.


Drug courts, alternatives to prison

Advocates for a lower prison population say the numbers will drop if the state invests more in options such as drug courts and mental health courts, which offer treatment and a clean record, if someone completes the court’s program. They also say more nonviolent offenders should be offered alternatives to prison. The advocates say when nonviolent people are locked up with hardened criminals, they may adopt their attitudes and behaviors, increasing the risk of recidivism – and the threat to the community -- upon their release.

Education and jobs

Some people say the community must invest more in central city schools, and that more children should get financial assistance for college. They also say there must be an investment in job training, to keep men from going to prison in the first place, and to prevent recidivism. We met Eddie Carter who’s learning a trade at the House of Correction. He told us he's participating in the program so he doesn't have to go back to what he was doing before. He says, " I got three babies, and I don’t want my kids to grow up and see Daddy like this.”


Organizations that help men in the central city find work say there aren’t enough bus routes to places where jobs are available, especially in the suburbs. As a result, some don’t work, and that may increase the chance that they’ll turn to crime as a way to make a living. “Many of the manufacturing jobs have moved outside of the city of Milwaukee and into even outlying counties, and the public transportation system just doesn’t really get there. So that really does leave the only option of driving if you do want to try to get to work, but then you’re still risking getting pulled over,” says Angela Catania, program supervisor for the Center for Driver's License Recovery and Employability in Milwaukee. 

Some men who can’t afford driver’s ed drive anyway, running the risk of penalties. Others who rack up citations for traffic violations, but don’t pay them on time, may end up with a warrant for their arrest. It could show up on criminal background checks employers conduct. 

David Liners is with WISDOM, a coalition of faith groups working to reduce the prison population. He says minor traffic violations can be part of what causes some people to spiral downward. “Traffic tickets all by themselves aren’t what land people in prison, but they’re just one more straw, one more burden that gets laid on people who are having a hard time making a go of it,” Liners says.


A number of groups are pushing to end or reduce the easy access to public records on CCAP, saying the website makes it too easy for employers and landlords to discriminate against someone with a criminal record.

Ann-Elise is WUWM's news director.
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