#CLOSEmsdf: A Dispatch from the Field

June 26, 2018

By Sharyl McFarland, JLUSA Milwaukee Community Organizer

The #CLOSEmsdf Campaign is going strong, and we’ve only just begun.  The Wisconsin Department of Corrections is stubborn, but so are we!  On June 28th hundreds of community members, campaign partners and supporters will be gathering to celebrate the progress we have made since our launch in June of 2017.  We will also be bearing witness to the terrible suffering the Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility (MSDF) has brought down on our community.  We call it a special kind of dungeon: no sunlight, no fresh air, extreme heat, no outdoor recreation, no windows, 22 hours of lockdown a day, and no in-person visits.  I have heard about people being thrown into solitary for things like “aggressive eyeballing”—staring a CO in the eye.  Thousands have been tortured there, hundreds made sick, and in its 17 years of existence, 16 men and one woman have died there.

I have lived in Milwaukee all my life and many of the men in my extended family have been incarcerated in Wisconsin including in MSDF.  My own son spent three horrific weeks there when he was only seventeen years old.  This is not surprising because my family lives in or close to zip code 53206 which has the highest incarceration rate for Black males in the whole country.   My neighborhood is 95 percent African American, and an incredible 62 percent of men here have spent time in prison by the time they are 34.  Once they leave prison they are still under correctional supervision, and that’s where the MSDF comes in.  Close to 65,000 Wisconsinites, disproportionately people of color, are on probation or parole, and even the slightest violation of a rule, like missing an appointment with a parole officer, can lead to revocation.  That means being locked up in the MSDF, sometimes for months, waiting for a revocation hearing.  Once you are in the system, it’s almost impossible to stay out.   The majority of people locked up in the MSDF are there because of alleged crimeless rule violations. The right to due process is nonexistent. This has to stop!

Going up against an entrenched and powerful system like the Department of Corrections is hard work that can wear you down.  But all I need is a good night’s sleep and then I’m ready to go out and fight for justice..  Our campaign gets stronger every day.  On June 12th we held a press conference and revocations rally outside the probation and parole office and then marched to the MSDF to attend what had been described to us as a public meeting, open to the community.   But when we got there, only two of our members were allowed in.  Instead of folding up and going home, we stood our ground.  We held up our signs, passed out our leaflets, and staged a live Facebook video protesting the fact that we, the public, were not permitted to attend a public meeting.   We’re passionate, and we want people to know they’re not alone.  Last time I looked, close to 3,000 people had watched the video.

I am out there every day talking to people about the issues.  I go everywhere.  Imagine me walking down the street with my #CLOSEmsdf T-shirt on, holding up my clipboard that has the campaign logo on it.  I introduce myself to people as they pass by, and if they stop, I talk to them about MSDF and hand them a flier.  I’ll stop at a bus stop and talk to the folks waiting for a bus.  I’ll tell them their voice matters and hand out pledge cards and voter engagement fliers.  I’ll tell them they can canvas with us or come to our office and do data entry.  If they have a story about MSDF, and many many people do, I’ll encourage them to share it with the campaign.  We’re getting stronger, one person at a time.

I’m very optimistic that in the long run, we will win.  In the past, many Milwaukeans didn’t know what the initials MSDF stood for; now they do.  People are talking about how inhumane the conditions there are, and pressure is building to reform the parole and probation revocation system. Earlier this month  WISDOM, a Wisconsin faith-based social justice organization and #CLOSEmsdf partner, organized a gubernatorial forum. Close to 700 people were there to hear seven candidates for governor promise to end crimeless revocations and to shutter MSDF.  A year ago we weren’t on the public’s agenda.  Now we are.

Once #CLOSEmsdf is victorious, there will still be a lot of injustices to deal with.  Milwaukee is one of the worst places to live if you’re a Black person whether you’re looking at incarceration rates, home ownership, child poverty, unemployment, teenage pregnancy, or any other measure of a community’s well-being.[1]  That’ll keep me busy until the Lord calls me home!

[1] http://dollarsandsense.org/archives/2015/1115schneider.html

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