Wisconsin incarcerates more of its Black population – 4 percent – than any other state in the country. African Americans comprise 6 percent of Wisconsin’s population but 45 percent of the prison population.
The guys in green are, for the most part, men in black skin. Fifteen graduates are Black. Three graduates are White. One of the Black graduates has white skin and black corn rows. Another appears Black, White, American Indian. Even the courts couldn’t decide his race. He is sometimes listed as Caucasian and sometimes African American on his many criminal complaints. Whether he is judged by his race matters little compared to the judgment he faces for his crimes, too many to list, the most heinous of which include incest with a child and sexual assault of a child.
He is outgoing, engaging, and well-spoken. He wears his graying hair in a stiff ponytail that trails the length of his long, slender back. He wrapped up the graduation by singing a song he wrote called “Grandma’s Hands.” I tell him it was lovely, and it was. He adored his grandma, misses her, hopes for a new one somehow. He said the song was a metaphor for the restorative justice program, a strict, caring, wise, ever-present guide. He said he needed his grandma’s guiding hands. I have a hard time believing those hands were very effective.
One of the White guys, who’s had a steady stream of well-wishers, is now sitting alone, wolfing his cake. I wonder if he feels like an outcast among his darker brothers. When he accepted his diploma, he took the microphone like an old pro. Turns out he is. He worked in radio in four states. He says he misses it. “Radio is an addiction,” he said, smiling. He is outgoing, gregarious even, smooth, well-spoken, quick with a joke and a smile, a bit of a showoff. We chat easily.
He used to work in the prison kitchen, but he gained 15 pounds licking out the giant bowls of cake batter. Now he works in the laundry, which is boring, he says, but he is happy to work. He said he had to get out of the kitchen, even though he liked the work. “The guy in charge, he and I didn’t – well, I have bakery experience. We didn’t do things the same way. It was time for me to get out of there, or I’d’ve gotten in trouble. I don’t want that.” He smiled and took another forkful of cake.
There are only about 200 jobs in the prison, and he says he is lucky to have one, even if all he does is lift and load green garb and press buttons. “It’s mind-numbing!” He laughs his easy laugh again.
In a moment, his face flashes anger, then resignation. Although it surprises me, I haven’t for a moment forgotten that this disarming, outgoing guy with the professional broadcasting voice is here for a reason. The reason is 25 years for first-degree sexual assault of a child, causing a child to expose a sex organ, and repeated sexual assault of the same child. He thinks he got a harsher sentence because he was a public figure. He is appealing the conviction. I leave him to finish his cake.
Being among these men is confusing. They are like men I see every day. They don’t look evil. There have no features that distinguish them from law-abiding men. They could be at the grocery store, the bus stop, the bank, in the car next to mine as I drive to school. The guys in green speak of their children, their jobs.
But they are not like men I see every day. Some of their crimes are shocking, frightening, sickening. Some are simply a laundry list of addiction. They have made terrible mistakes and many have made them repeatedly. As a society we have decided they need to be punished for what they have done and separated to keep the rest of us safe. I’m OK with that.
But they need rehabilitation, and the men in this program want it. And they will need help when they are released. It would be sad, it would be foolish, it would be wrong to let them have their 13-inch TVs and their 90 minutes of exercise three times a week and little else. They need to be prepared to re-enter society, and society needs to be prepared to accept them.
When the guys in green receive their diplomas, they are allowed to say a few words.
“This program should be required for all eligible inmates. It would reduce recidivism. People on the outside need to know there are offenders who do wish to repair the damage they’ve done.”
“I’ve learned so much. There’s going to be a world of giving back.”
“I am deeply sorry for the crimes I have committed. Those of you on the outside, thank you for not giving up on us.”
The guys in green are grateful for the chances they have been given to rehabilitate themselves. They want to rejoin society and do a better job of being men. For all our sakes, I hope they can, and I believe at least some of them will.
Part 1, Part 2