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Travelling Jail Cell Aims to Deter Young People From Crime

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Marti Mikkelson
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Young people tour the "Cell on Wheels" at a recent street festival

A novel approach to crime reduction has been making the rounds at Milwaukee's street festivals. It’s a tiny enclosure, called Cell on Wheels.

Teenagers have been climbing into it to get a feel for what it would be like to spend time behind bars.

At the 11th Street block party on Milwaukee’s north side, you see the typical sights: neighbors grilling brats, kids in a bounce house. Not far away is something you don’t expect; a tiny jail cell built inside a trailer.

Organizer Rick Neighborhood is the tour guide. He helps three teenage girls step into the trailer. Then, they begin surveying the meager accommodations; a bunk bed with lumpy mattresses and a toilet.

The tour lasts only a few minutes. Yet Jazmine Dyson says the jail cell made an impression. She vows she will never end up in one.

“The little mats in there are hard. Jail is like you’ve been in a hole or something,” Dyson says.

Jazmine says she hopes to become a doctor someday and jail would put a crimp in her plans.

Fourteen-year-old Tysheonna Jones has a similar reaction. She calls the cell “nasty.” Like Jazmine, she wants to go into medicine, but for a while feared she’d end up in jail, if she didn’t behave.

“I got kicked out of school for fighting. I learned my lesson from it. If I keep fighting or going down the path I’m going, I’m not going to be a nurse. I’m going to be in jail,” Jones says.

Tysheonna thinks most people who tour the jail cell will get the message. But another person at the block party, Willie Jones, isn’t so optimistic.

Jones says he sees a lot of robberies and fighting in his neighborhood and the threat of jail doesn’t seem to matter.

“Some people, they still aren’t going to care. They’re going to keep doing what they’re doing,” Jones says.

Johnson Smith is with the organization that sponsors the Cell on Wheels. He says the idea is to get young people to ponder their actions.

“Before you steal a car, before you hold a gun, before you sell some drugs, hopefully you’ll think about what you’re doing and remember this jail cell and what it will be like when you get caught,” Smith says.

Smith is president of the Phenomenal Men’s Support Group for recovering alcoholics. He says the Cell on Wheels is the brainchild of one of its members who had served time in prison.

The Milwaukee County Sheriff’s office donated the bunk beds. The group has spent the past few summers taking the cell to outdoor events in the central city.

“I know the message has sunk in with some because sometimes I’ll be out in the community, at Walmart or someplace and a kid will say I remember you. So if you remember me, hopefully you’ll remember something I said also,” Smith says.

Smith says it’s especially meaningful to him, if he can keep a young person out of jail. When he was younger, he spent three years behind bars for dealing drugs.

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