How One Milwaukee Zip Code Explains America’s Mass Incarceration Problem

A three-sport star and standout student at the Milwaukee Public Schools in the 1960s and ’70s, William Harrell worked with the city’s health department and at a nightclub before his life devolved into a cycle of confinement. In the early-’80s, Harrell fell into a crack cocaine habit that landed him four years of probation and a six-year suspended sentence. He didn’t make it through the probationary period and bounced between prisons in Wisconsin and Oklahoma. After his release, he found work as a church deacon before a relapse landed him back in jail.

“I probably needed some type of cognitive intervention,” Harrell said.

Harrell, 60, has kicked his drug addiction thanks to bible study and what he calls a “spiritual awakening.” But in the inner city zip code where he grew up, 53206, there are countless other stories like his — or worse. In a nation plagued by discriminatory mass incarceration, and a city named the most segregated metropolitan area in America, that 95-percent black zip code exemplifies the epidemic: Every neighborhood block has seen multiple men put in prison, according to a February WUWM report. And prison becomes the default for many who don’t have access to treatment or other resources.

Misplaced Priorities

Wisconsin, which has the highest percentage of incarcerated black men among all 50 states, now spends more on prisons than education. By age 30–34, only 38 percent of men in the 53206 zip code have not spent time in an adult state correctional facility, according to a 2007 study on the area by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.


Black men were 11 to 12 times as likely as white men to have drug-related prison admissions in Milwaukee from 2002 to 2005, according to another report last year by UW-Milwaukee, despite nationwide evidence that whites use drugs more than blacks. In the 53206 zip code, charges for “drug offenses only” skyrocketed by 493 percent from 1993 to 2005.

“If [police] want to round up people selling drugs, for some reason they don’t go to the University of Wisconsin — the dorms — which probably would net them quite a few arrests,” David Liners, the state director of prison reform coalition WISDOM, told ThinkProgress.

Treatment Versus Incarceration

The common justification for the relentless lock-up tactics is that they take criminals off the streets, thus helping communities in danger. E. Michael McCann, the District Attorney of Milwaukee County from 1968 to 2006, offered the defense at a recent panel discussion.

“What’s the impact on the community of having people that are going around shooting people or drug dealing in a high quantity?” McCann said.


But most convicts are not going around shooting people. Forty percent of African American men from greater Milwaukee County incarcerated since 1990 were put away for drug crimes and one-third for nonviolent offenses, according to last year’s UW-Milwaukee study.

Liners said that a consensus has developed for front-end prevention tactics to reduce mass incarceration, including drug treatment that is more prevalent in white, suburban communities and could have helped someone like Harrell far more than prison did. A measure that commits $1.5 million per year to treatment alternatives and diversions is making its way through the legislature. But Liners thinks the state needs about $75 million annually, which could be accomplished by reducing the state’s prison population and the accompanying spending. That is the goal of WISDOM’s 11×15 campaign, which aims to slash 11,000 inmates from the incarceration rolls by 2015 and put the state in line with neighboring Minnesota.

Advocates and policymakers, however, are “miles apart” on reforms to sentencing and reducing barriers to employment, housing and education, Liners said. While a state legislator, Governor Scott Walker (R) sponsored the Truth in Sentencing Act, which has vastly increased the difficulty of prisoners earning parole for good behavior.

“People can change. That was the whole concept behind parole … I really think there’s a worldview that doesn’t believe in that — that once you’re a criminal, you’re always a criminal — you’re just a bad person,” Liners said. “And that’s not just in Wisconsin. That’s all over the country.”

Challenges Upon Returning From Prison

After an initial sentence, ex-offenders find little economic opportunity available to them. In May, 2009, full-time employment was available for only one of every 25 job-seeking people in six of the poorest Milwaukee zip codes, the more recent UW-Milwaukee study found.


Reverend Joseph Ellwanger, who works with WISDOM, told ThinkProgress that he is amazed at the community members’ persistence in filling out job applications despite being rejected hundreds of times.

“If we had an Allis-Chalmers or an A.O. Smith Factory — the likes of which used to be in the central city of Milwaukee up until the 1970s — if we had one of those companies there to put an ad in the paper tomorrow for 500 workers, I guarantee you that there would be a line that would go down three to four blocks of people waiting to apply for those jobs,” said Ellwanger, who, before becoming a fixture in Milwaukee, was one of the few white ministers to march alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. and civil rights protestors in Alabama.

Rosland Anderson used to run a business that helped prisoners petition the governor for pardons and currently keeps correspondence with 14 inmates. For her step-brother, who spent 10 years behind bars, the hardest part of readjustment is not getting a job, but keeping one.

“That’s really his challenge — coming home and trying to conform to the system after being gone for so long,” she said.

Further restrictions to employment and citizenship cripple convicts for the rest of their lives. Often, they are prevented from obtaining housing vouchers and become ineligible for Pell grants to seek educational opportunities. Criminal records can also result in revoked or suspended driver’s licenses, which is especially damaging for 53206 residents, 94 percent of whom commuted to jobs outside the zip code at the time of the 2007 study. Meanwhile, 90 percent of the people employed within 53206 did not live in the area, and 56 percent were white.

Reverend Willie Brisco of Milwaukee Inner-City Congregations Allied for Hope said at the panel on mass incarceration that black males labeled criminals are discarded upon returning to society.

“They have a stigma attached to them,” he said. “Then we tell them, alright, straighten yourself up, get your life back on track. But then we attach an anvil to their back when they come out that will keep them hindered.”

The forces conspired to cause a recidivism rate of over 50 percent for ex-offenders between the ages of 25 and 34 in 53206, the 2007 study found.

The War on Drugs and prison policies have also increasingly targeted women, according to Jeanne Geraci, executive director of the Benedict Center, a nonprofit that offers community-based alternatives for prison sentences.

“The thing to understand is that people don’t live in vacuums,” Geraci said. “They live in family systems. So we’re talking about mothers and fathers and children really, when we’re talking about who’s being affected by the criminal justice system and this mass incarceration.”