‘There’s more to people than the mistakes they’ve made’

By: - September 3, 2019 7:00 am
razor wire on a prison fence

Prison fence. Image by Jody Davis from Pixabay

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Wisconsin is conducting a statewide Justice Tour to discuss criminal justice reform. A meeting in Milwaukee on August 29 focused on organizing against parole revocations for non-criminal rule violations and mass incarceration.

ACLU justice tour Brown Deer Church
Milwaukee panel on criminal justice reform. Photo by Isiah Holmes

Held at the Brown Deer United Methodist Church, Milwaukee’s meeting featured a panel discussion titled “Investing In Wisconsin’s Future Through Criminal Justice Reform.” Other stops on the Justice Tour include the Oshkosh Rverside Campus on Sept. 12, the Wauwatosa Public Library on Sept. 29, and Green Bay on Oct. 10.

“These events are very important,” said Sean Wilson, a statewide organizer with the ACLU who works with the Smart Justice Campaign. “These are issues that are impacting so many communities, black, white, native, brown.”

Judge Dan Gabler
Judge Dan Gabler. Photo by Isiah Holmes

Judge Dan Gabler, who was in the audience, told Wisconsin Examiner “This is a very important issue that is really affecting all aspects of our society. If someone’s going to jail or prison, it’s affecting their families, their workplace, it affects the entire community because that’s someone who’s being removed from the community.”

A main topic of discussion was crimeless revocation, or parole violations which often are not illegal acts themselves, including arriving late to a meeting with your parole officer, moving to a new house without permission, and other minor infractions. 

During his part of the presentation, Wilson shared the story of an acquaintance who moved from the upstairs unit of his duplex to a lower floor. Since his parole officer wasn’t informed, he was sent to a detention facility. Parole revocation costs people their jobs, puts them at risk of eviction from their homes, and interrupts the re-intergration process after incarceration. “This is something that is very close to my heart,” Wilson told Wisconsin Examiner. “I’m from the community that is impacted by this issue.”

poster for ACLU criminal justice reform meetings
ACLU panel in Milwaukee

Chantell Jewell, another panelist, is deputy administrator for Milwaukee County’s Division of Youth and Family Services, and a former probation officer. 

Jewell pointed out that mass incarceration robs business owners of a workforce. Pointing to statistics on the 23,478 adults behind bars in Wisconsin she noted that a large number of potential workers are kept out of the workforce while they are locked up.

Rehabilitation and work-training are also stymied by keeping people locked up instead of allowing them out on probation parole, she said.  “I’ve worked with many individuals who have gotten some skills and certifications within the prison. However, when it came time to get them employment, all we heard was ‘they don’t have the work experience.’”

The children of incarcerated men and women also suffer when their parents are locked up, becoming more vulnerable to poverty and homelessness. 

Judge Gabler said the conversation about incarceration should focus on “who poses an unreasonable risk to the community.”

Some people whose parole was revoked have found themselves in the Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility (MSDF). Designed to look like a high-rise apartment building, complete with fake windows, the facility has been at the center of controversy after the death of detainees, overcrowding, and a shortage of medical care made headlines and triggered community protests.

“It can take up to 48 hours to be booked at MSDF,” panelist and community engagement director with the Americans for Prosperity Foundation Aldira Aldape told the crowd. “There’s no phone call.” Aldape gave the example of a man who needs to pick up his kids from school while the mother works. If he gets picked up for any reason and sent to MSDF, “How are those kids get home that evening? Who knows?”

While MSDF has attracted its own resistance movement, some of the panelists suggested culture changes are necessary. “We’ve become accustomed to incarceration being the only solution. That is the way to make sure someone doesn’t do it again,” says Udi Ofer, ACLU deputy national political director and the director of the Smart Justice Campaign. “And that is a misunderstanding of how we should treat our fellow human beings.”

Panelist Jessica Zarling, who served nine years in prison for stabbing her ex-husband and is now an advocate for other people who are incarcerated, addicted, and victims of trauma, said, “It goes back to examining our own selves and asking, would you want to be forever condemned for this one wrong thing that you did?”

“There’s more to people than the mistakes that they’ve made,” she added. “People want to be accepted. People want to belong—especially people coming out of prison.”

Photo by: Isiah Holmes

“We must have this conversation,” Wilson told Wisconsin Examiner. “We must engage these elected officials so that they can put forward the smart reforms that are going to restore and repair the harm that has been done.”


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Isiah Holmes
Isiah Holmes

Isiah Holmes is a journalist and videographer, and a lifelong resident of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His writing has been featured in Urban Milwaukee, Isthmus, Milwaukee Stories, Milwaukee Neighborhood News Services, Pontiac Tribune, the Progressive Magazine, Al Jazeera, and other outlets.