— This blog is based on an opinion in in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Crossroads section on Sunday July 15, 2018.
Mark Rice admits he has made mistakes in life — the most serious when he was a teenager. Convicted of burglary, he spent two years in prison and was released on 12 years’ probation.
Rice, now 39 and with a history of mental illness, has worked hard to get his life back on track. Today is he in the doctoral program in urban studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
His main focus is ending mass incarceration, in particular, closing the Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility. It is an issue he knows well. In 2007, he was imprisoned for six months at the downtown facility following a disorderly conduct charge that was later dropped.
Middle-class whites whose interactions with the courts center on speeding tickets might ask, “How can you be sent to prison when you were not convicted of a crime?”
People familiar with the nightmare of mass incarceration will understand. Rice was sent back to prison for violating the terms of his probation, which state you cannot get arrested. It made no difference that the disorderly conduct case was dismissed.
“For me, the most difficult part was being incarcerated again without being convicted of anything, and that created a lot of anger in me,” Rice says. “It took me a while to calm down.”
|CLOSEmsdf activists at the May Day march in Waukesha.|
Rice challenged his return to prison and after six months he got a hearing before a judge, who released him from jail and from probation. His story has a “happy ending” — happy, that is, if you ignore that he lost his job, his housing, his health insurance, and his full-tuition UWM scholarship.
At the same time, Rice found a passionate calling. In addition to his studies, he now works with JustLeadershipUSA, which is dedicated to cutting the U.S. correctional population in half by 2030. In Milwaukee, the group is focusing on the campaign to close the Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility (MSDF).
The state-run MSDF was built in 2001, primarily to imprison people on parole/probation violations. It is located just off 10th and State, overlooking the freeway, and was designed as a “building within a building.” Passers-by can be forgiven if they mistake the facility as just another drab-looking office tower.
But the medium-security MSDF has garnered a national reputation as an inhumane facility on par with New York City’s infamous Rikers Island.
There is no direct sunlight for people incarcerated at the MSDF, no fresh air, poor ventilation, no outdoor exercise, and no in-person visits from family or friends. Those incarcerated are kept in their cells for 20 hours a day or more, and overcrowding is rampant. Only a few small sections are air-conditioned.
For those working to shut down the prison — a year-old campaign best known by the hashtag #CloseMSDF — the facility is a brutal, merciless solution to a problem that, under more enlightened policies, wouldn’t exist.
Imprisoned for 'crimeless crimes'
Most of those detained at the MSDF are there because of “revocation” — a seemingly benign term that, in practice, means people can be sent back to prison even if they have not committed a new crime but have merely violated one of the “Rules of Supervision” for people on parole, probation or extended supervision.
It’s doubtful that even George Orwell could have come up with the bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo that masks the realities of the state Department of Corrections’ (DOC) “Rules of Supervision.”
The first of the almost 30 rules sets the tone: “Avoid all conduct which is in violation of federal or state statute, municipal or country ordinances, tribal law or which is not in the best interest of the public welfare or your rehabilitation” (emphasis added).
Other rules are equally broad and subject to capricious enforcement. For instance, your home, computer or cell phone can be searched at any time. You have to inform your probation/parole agent of your whereabouts or activities “as he/she directs.” You need written approval before buying, selling or even operating a motor vehicle. You need permission to travel out of state. You may not possess or consume any alcohol or have any contact with a drug user, even if it may be a brother or uncle, mother or father.
Due to the state’s emphasis on imprisoning people for “crimeless crimes,” the MSDF suffers from chronic overcrowding and averaged 1,077 incarcerated people a day last year. The annual operating budget was almost $40 million. About 65% of those at the facility are African American, and 62% have mental health problems.
When Rice was at MSDF, he was the third person in a cell originally designed for one person. He slept on the floor, his head a few feet from the toilet. Diagnosed as a person with paranoid schizophrenia, he was in a special unit for people with mental health problems. The overcrowding, poor conditions and inadequate medical services only exacerbated the trauma of incarcerated people. Fights were common.
According to #CloseMSDF, 17 people have died while at the facility. This January, the state paid $1 million to settle a case involving Jeremy Cunningham, who died at the MSDF in 2011 after a guard ignored cellmates who pressed an emergency alarm and said Cunningham was having a seizure. The guard said Cunningham was merely “snoring,” and hung up on the emergency call.
Alternatives to incarceration
“People often ask us, ‘What are you going to do with the people in MSDF if you close it down?’” Rice notes. “And our answer is, ‘People shouldn’t be in jail for crimeless rule violations. You are imprisoning people already struggling with poverty, mental health and addiction.’”
His time at MSDF, Rice says, “was one of the most traumatic experiences of my life.”
Launched a little over a year ago, #CLOSEmsdf has garnered support from religious and community groups and legislators, with most of the Democratic gubernatorial candidates supporting the facility’s closure. #CLOSEmsdf is calling for the money saved to be invested in community-based programs, in particular, job training and mental health services.
In 1990, Wisconsin imprisoned 7,332 people. Today the figure is about 23,500, a factor in the 2010 Census findings that Wisconsin locks up a higher percentage of African Americans than any other state. The “lock-em-up” mentality also means that the state now spends more tax dollars on corrections than on the University of Wisconsin System.
Perhaps most devastating, policies of mass incarceration rip apart the lives of not only individuals but also families and communities.
There’s been a lot of talk in Milwaukee about addressing our city’s trauma crisis. But in addition to treating traumatized individuals, it’s imperative to promote policies that prevent trauma in the first place.
Shutting down the MSDF is a good place to start.
Note: The changes from the MJS opinion primarily reflect language preferred by those active in the struggle against mass incarceration — replacing words such as inmates and prisoners to people-centered language such as formerly incarcerated people or people with conviction records.