When Anthony Cooper Sr. explained the vision behind a Nehemiah Center for Urban Leadership Development’s conference on challenges faced by former prisoners reentering society, he emphasized that he wanted to analyze what’s not working in Wisconsin's corrections system and act on it.
But that doesn’t mean Cooper, speakers or attendees were under any illusions that a corrections system overhaul is an easy task.
“Not one agency, not one provider here, not one advocate here, not one speaker here, not one program represented here has the magic wand to solve all the issues that individuals face coming out of the criminal justice system,” said Jacquelyn Hunt, who attended the conference.
Even so, conferences like this one are helpful because they encourage efforts to change the system, she said.
“We need everybody to just show up and bring what they have to the table,” Hunt said.
The event ran Thursday and Friday, March 28 and 29, at Fountain of Life Covenant Church, 633 W. Badger Road. Reentry refers to entering the community following an individual's release from jail or prison. Cooper, vice president of re-entry and strategic partnerships at the Nehemiah, acted as emcee.
The conference was organized to cover wide ground, from how reentry affects heath to housing to an individual's sense of purpose, and to talk about what can be done to better serve ex-prisoners.
The first speaker, former state corrections secretary Ed Wall, dove right into what is not working in the current Wisconsin Department of Corrections system.
Wall, who resigned from his role in 2016 in the midst of an FBI investigation into Lincoln Hills and was then fired from his job in the state Department of Justice, has detailed his displeasure with Walker’s administration in a critical, tell-all book and more recently, in a column outlining the problems with Wisconsin corrections.
He repeated many of those same problems in his talk Thursday, and advocated for changes like stopping revocation for simple rule violations, adequately staffing prisons and pay corrections officer and counselors a competitive wage and closing Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility.
But Wall said it’s extremely difficult to make changes in corrections without the support of the governor’s office and the state Legislature. He found quickly that even as secretary, he “really (didn’t) have any power at all” in a Walker administration that subscribed to a “tough on crime” ethos, he said.
“It should not be in corrections an issue of warehousing people, it’s an issue of a social problem and until the administration, until the politicians get their arms around that, we’re doing nothing but treading water,” Wall said.
He emphasized the importance of advocacy.
“Every seat in here should be filed with legislators ... with people who can affect change by writing those laws that can make differences,” Wall said.
Racine City Council member Maurice Horton, who spent time in prison and was pardoned by former Gov. Jim Doyle, later said legislators “don’t want to come here.”
“Because you guys are going to ask the tough questions. And they have no answers,” he said, adding: “They have the answer, but they don’t want to make the change.”
Attendees certainly arrived at the event with questions. They pressed Wall for answers: Why do parole officers have so much discretion? What happens to all the money former prisoners pay for requirements like electric monitoring?
James Morgan, a peer-support specialist at Madison-area Urban Ministry, was one audience member during Wall’s talk who expressed frustration with unsuccessful efforts to change corrections and emphasized the importance of “knocking on the doors of legislators” and figuring out “how we’re going to get people actively involved.”
“I guess y’all can l tell I’m a little bit angry,” Morgan said, and attendees laughed.
After Wall’s talk, Morgan said there needs to be pressure on elected officials.
“It’s going to take you know people truly getting involved. It’s going to take all of us,” he said.
Legislative advocacy isn’t Hunt’s area of focus, she said. As the founder and CEO of the new organization FOSTER (Families Overcoming Struggles To Encourage Restoration), she works one-on-one with formerly incarcerated people and impoverished African-American families.
“There's people who do politics and they do it well,” she said. “Then there's people like me who relate to individuals and personal struggles ... So at the end of the day, if we’ve all done our part, we’re good.”
She hoped the conference would spark passion among other attendees who might not yet have found their avenue for action.
Attendee Eugene Crisler’El, a member of Ex-Prisoners Organizing, was definitely gathering ideas. He brainstormed possible action steps as he listened to the speakers, jotting down a list of new ways to engage the community, raise awareness and connect with youth.
After his talk, Wall said that with a new administration, he’s “very hopeful” that DOC can evolve, though it will be difficult to motivate the legislature to make changes.
“You’ve got a governor who understands the challenges of corrections for what needs to be done. You’ve got a (DOC) secretary, Kevin Carr, who’s got a lot of experience who’s a good man,” he said.
Morgan has heard these same conversations about how to reform the system for “decades,” since he was in prison himself, he said. He said change is especially difficult because organizations financially benefit from the criminal justice system, even down to who provides the toothbrushes and uniforms in prisons.
But he’s still hopeful. Conferences like this build awareness and community collaboration, and he’s especially motivated by what he’s seen from today’s politically active “young people,” he said.
“Our young people are starting to become politically and actively involved in the issues, whether we’re talking about climate change, whether we’re talking about education,” he said. “Where our generation might be stuck talking about issues of privilege, white privilege, all of the disparities that exist, our young people are looking at ways to change that.”