The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
December 8, 2017

The effects of long-term and mass incarceration are felt from Milwaukee to Washington, DC

Baron Walker has been in prison for over 22 years, serving back-to-back sentences totaling 60 years for his participation in a pair of robberies. These crimes normally carry sentences of four to seven years.

Baron’s sentencing resulted in part from the 1998 Truth in Sentencing law, which virtually eliminated the chance of early release on parole. Baron was sentenced before Truth in Sentencing but lives with its effects.

Baron’s wife Beverly is the focus of the documentary MILWAUKEE 53206, which shares the stories of several individuals and families living in a high-crime Milwaukee neighborhood. The Urban Institute convened a large audience for a screening of the documentary last week on Howard University’s campus.

The film explores issues that include prison term lengths, the price families pay when a loved one is incarcerated, and the challenges of reentering society.

Beverly must care for her family while facing the emotional exhaustion of having a loved one in prison for decades. She attended the screening and shared an update with the audience after the film: despite legal efforts, Baron remains in prison, but she continues to advocate on his behalf.

Harold Dean Trulear, a professor at Howard and director of Healing Communities, a faith-based program mobilizing congregations to support returning citizens, also offered his thoughts. Trulear reminded the audience that the data are compelling, but personal stories are even more important: “We gasp at the numbers, we know we incarcerate 25 percent of the word’s inmates, but what motivates people are faces.”

Trulear talked about his community work to reduce the stigma that affects justice-involved people and their families. “We need to create safe space for the people around us to tell their stories. When I preach, the first thing I do is give them my inmate number, and at close, I do an altar call for families of the incarcerated because we want to break the stigma. We’ve never had an empty alter.”

Opening the floor up for discussion, audience members shared reflections that revealed the film’s relevance to the DC community. They identified both similarities and differences in the local story. As in Milwaukee, formerly incarcerated people in DC struggle to find acceptance after release.

But unlike people elsewhere, who typically serve time in state-run facilities, DC residents serve their time in federal facilities throughout the country. Although the US Bureau of Prisons tries to place incarcerated people close to home, DC residents are still more likely to serve their sentences farther away from their homes and families.

Though MILWAUKEE 53206 takes place 800 miles away, it resonated in DC, where nearly 1 in 14 residents have a criminal conviction in the past 10 years, and average time served increased 47 percent from 2007 to 2013.

One audience member shared that he had been incarcerated for 16 years and implored community members to welcome back returning citizens. Another reminded the audience how important it is to “give back to youth who live here” and protect DC’s young people from getting involved in the criminal justice system. Two audience members shared their prisoner ID numbers and told their success stories, reminders of the perseverance and potential of returning citizens and their positive impact on our community.

Though MILWAUKEE 53206 takes place nearly 800 miles away, it resonated here in DC, where nearly 35,000 people (1 in 14 residents) have a criminal conviction in the past 10 years, and average time served increased 47 percent from 2007 to 2013.

Everything from Beverly’s story to Trulear’s comments to audience members’ personal reflections reinforced the importance—at the individual and societal levels—of remembering the humanity of justice-involved people and not allowing them to be dehumanized, nor their families shamed.  

That means considering state-level reforms that eliminate problematic sentencing and corrections policies like Truth in Sentencing. It also means recognizing and finding solutions for the challenges people face reentering the community.

Whether it’s making Medicaid enrollment a part of prerelease activities, preparing men to be responsible and engaged fathers when they’re back with their families, or identifying and elevating the most effective strategies to reduce recidivism, local policymakers can use both research and personal stories to take a comprehensive look at how best to ease reentry.

But it doesn’t stop there. All kinds of local stakeholders have an important role to play in giving returning citizens their best chance in our community. 

Photo by Amanda Rhoades for the Urban Institute.

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