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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.

Cutting WI's High Black Male Incarceration Rate: Progress, But a Long Way to Go

It’s been one year since WUWM began an in-depth series on the state's high rate of African American male incarceration.

Wisconsin leads the nation, by far.

WUWM is checking in with a few key players in the efforts to reduce the numbers. Republican state Rep. Rob Hutton of Brookfield says developments in Madison have been slow. But he’s hopeful change is on the way, including in the form of legislation that would provide treatment alternatives to prison, for non-violent offenders.

“I think what is encouraging about this whole issue is it’s now a part of the discussion,” Hutton says.

Republicans hold the majority in state government. Hutton believes GOP and Democratic lawmakers are interested in reducing the number of people in state prisons, in part, because of the high cost of incarceration. He also says many realize most inmates will one day return to the community. So, Hutton says, the state must play a role – along with non-profits – in ensuring the return is successful, preventing offenders from going back to prison.

A number of the changes activists would like to see would have to be put into place by lawmakers. The Rev. Willie Brisco of Milwaukee Inner-city Congregations Allied for Hope (MICAH) has been disappointed in many legislators, so far. Brisco and MICAH have been involved in efforts by WISDOM, a statewide network of faith groups, to cut the prison population in half by 2015.

The Rev. Brisco and UWM's Lois Quinn discuss changes they would like to see, as the state grapples with its high African American male incarceration rate

“Most of our politicians have been in office and have sat over this hopelessness that’s going on in this city, and they need to do something about it, and they need to do something now,” Brisco says.

Although he’s disappointed in the pace of efforts to reduce the black male prison population, Brisco says he’s pleased with progress in another area: the public’s growing knowledge of the issue. Brisco says before the past year, many of those directly impacted by the prison rate were not aware of its scope.

“I think they were so busy surviving and trying to deal with day-to-day life, they don’t look at the numbers and the studies as much as other people,” Brisco says.

The Rev. Willie Brisco and UWM's Lois Quinn talk about progress they've seen in the past year, in reducing the state's high African American incarceration rate

Like Brisco, Lois Quinn is eager to see the numbers go down. Quinn is with UWM’s Employment and Training Institute. She co-authored the study in the spring of 2013, which revealed Wisconsin leads the nation in locking up black men. Quinn says the community already has tools at its disposal that could make a difference. For instance, Quinn says leaders could decide to make tuition free at technical colleges, providing opportunities that would keep men from going to prison – or prevent their return.

“We’ve got the wherewithal. We need to have the will,” Quinn says.

Ann-Elise is WUWM's news director.
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