by Mikel Kwaku Osei Holt
Several times a week, in the darkness of the wee hours of the early morning, a department of corrections vehicle drops off several newly released prison inmates in downtown Milwaukee.
The lucky ones will have a family member or spouse pick them up and a support system to return to.
Others, with but a few dollars in their pockets and limited connections end up wondering the streets, in search of shelter and a second chance at life. Many, if not most, caught up in that latter scenario will eventually find their way back to prison.
A lucky few will contact Prison Action Milwaukee (PAM), a non-profit advocacy and assistance program run by volunteers whose primary mission is to reduce recidivism. PAM volunteers help released inmates find jobs, shelter and assist them in finding pathways to societal acceptance.
PAM volunteers also serve as advocates for released inmates with probation officers, and also assist them in finding legal representation when needed.
Not on the organization’s brochures are services including a shoulder to cry on, a firm and assertive hand to make sure clients don’t engage in activities that led to their incarceration in the first place, and an occasional kick in the butt to jump-start and motivate.
PAM is a safety net wove by Rose Scott, a retired college professor and community activist whose first encounter with the criminal justice system left her angry, frustrated and bewildered.
Scott tells of the story of a relative who was charged with misdemeanor domestic battery prior to moving to Georgia to start his life anew. A confrontation with his then girlfriend was part of the motivation for his decision to leave Milwaukee.
The incident was more of a heated shouting match than a violent outburst, and the young man thought little of it before leaving town.
He was working two jobs and trying to make a better life for himself when out of the blue, he found himself confronted by two Milwaukee County Sheriff’s deputies who arrested and transported him back to Milwaukee.
The incident resulted in his losing both jobs, and those who heard of it found it mind-boggling that deputies from Milwaukee would travel over a 1,000 miles to arrest someone for what amounted to a misdemeanor for a non-violent argument.
So did the judge who heard the case.
Scott was going to bail the man out of county jail, but didn’t at his urging. But she also found it unbelievable that unlike other states, she couldn’t post a property bond, but instead would have been forced to pay several thousands dollars for what turned out to be a disputed misdemeanor.
The incident, particularly the trauma and loss of employment suffered by the young man, not only prompted Rose to question the system, but also to acknowledge the necessity for a group to intercede on behalf of individuals in similar circumstances. D
iscussions with others directly and indirectly impacted by the criminal justice system prompted Scott to start the PAM a half dozen years ago.
“I was attending a discussion where everyone was complaining about the criminal justice system,” she recalled. “Everybody had a story to tell and most of them were frustrated because they didn’t believe they had a place to go (to address their concerns). Everybody was complaining and crying. Finally, I stood up and said ‘we can complain, or we can do something; we can start our own group.’”
PAM was the result of that meeting, and volunteers have had no shortage of work to keep them busy ever since.
“There’s just so much to do,” she acknowledged “For example, we started with intervention, trying to assist individuals who found themselves confronting a system that seems insurmountable.
There are people in jail and prison who found it easier to admit to something they didn’t do, rather than to fight because they didn’t have a high priced lawyer.”
Lamont Gregory, one of the group’s top volunteers has had run-ins with the criminal justice system himself, so he could relate to the complexity of issues and concerns. One of the areas he initially focused on was a state law, Act 28, which addressed parole for inmates incarcerated prior to the state’s truth in sentencing legislation, in 2000.
“In a lot of cases, we learned that many older inmates from Milwaukee, who had served long terms and were not a threat to society, were getting deferment instead of parole. It was systemic and it had a lot of racial overtones,” he explained.
Gregory said the organization had a friend in Lenard Wells, the former Milwaukee police officer and League of Martin president who was appointed to head probation and parole under former Governor Jim Doyle, who incidentally, was the author of truth in sentencing, which essentially ended parole.
Gregory said it was not a surprise why Wells was ultimately forced to resign. “Too many hard liners thought that he was releasing too many (Black) inmates.
“But it wasn’t because they were a threat to the community. It was partly racial. Wells was a retired policeman, so he was definitely a proponent of law and order. But he was also about second chances, and what was best for society.
Keeping old reformed Black men in prison at a cost of $38,000 a year, didn’t make a lot of sense. So we engaged and advocated on their behalf.”
PAM has also worked extensively with State Senator Lena Taylor, who prior to the election of Governor Scott Walker in 2010 was chair of the senate criminal justice committee.
“Lena was a God-send,” Scott said. “She would put pressure on the Department of Corrections, because they had to go through her committee for funding. Lena is an advocate for alternatives to incarceration, as is District Attorney John Chisholm. There are many criminal justice leaders who think there is a better way. Most of the inmates today are Black and their offenses are drug related.
“In far too many cases, they would be better off going through alternative programs. As things are today, they get out of prison, and as felons can’t get a job or support, and many end up returning to bad habits to survive. It’s a vicious cycle that benefits nobody.”
Gregory agreed, adding that while PAM is never short of clients to serve, they are limited in what they can do.
The organization operates off donations and volunteers. And it is not affiliated with any large group, or philanthropic funding source. Rose also serves on the NAACP’s criminal justice committee and the ACLU. “Neither has a strong focus on this serious issue; the NAACP is awaiting (policy) decisions from national.”
Unlike many social service groups that have a mission of working themselves out of a job, PAM’s Scott recognizes that as long as there is a criminal justice system, there will be individuals who need their services, at both ends of the spectrum.
She is hopeful, however, that Wisconsin policy makers can see the value in reducing the state’s prison population.
Wisconsin currently has the highest Black incarceration rate in the country, state funding of the prison industrial complex is nearly double that of our neighbor, Minnesota, even though the states’ demographics are similar.
In a couple of weeks, MICAH will introduce what the religious coalition is calling an “11X15” campaign, Scott revealed.
The centerpiece of the campaign is to reduce the state prison population by 11,000 by 2015.
“It will be an uphill battle, but we will join them in that campaign,” Scott said, because it speaks to a flaw in Wisconsin’s criminal justice mindset.
“A short time ago, I was downtown and observed this young fellow walking around idly,” Gregory interjected.
“He seemed to have no direction, no purpose. It didn’t take me long to figure out he was one of those recently released inmates,” Gregory said with a tinge of anger and frustration in his voice.
“I approached him, told him about our program and we intervened. We gave him a bus ticket and options. We helped him with food and shelter. Hopefully, with help, he’ll end up on the right track.
But we know Milwaukee already has the highest Black male unemployment rates in the country, a fact that puts this young brother at the back of the line.
“Society has to understand the predicament these young men are in. We can help them down a righteous path, or we can ignore them and act surprised when they end back up in the system.”
PAM is located at 37th and Wisconsin. Its website is prionactionsmilwaukee.org. If you’re in need of their services, or want to make a donation, call 414.431-0230.
Remember, not every inmate is a thug, and all of them are someone’s brother, uncle, father or son. One way or another, their pathways will intercept with ours.
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