Many of Wisconsin's Black Male Offenders Go Back to Prison, Struggle to Stay Out
Larry Jackson's first run-in with the law was a stint in a juvenile facility at nine-years-old. Since then, the Milwaukee man's been in and out of prison, spending about 20 years total behind bars.
"I've always been a hustler all my life," he says. "It was just knowing too much, being out there too much, getting caught up with the wrong people, I'd like to think. For me, shoot, I be lucky to stay out a year when I get out."
Jackson's story is similar to many black men's in Milwaukee, where more than half of young African-American men have already served time in state prison. Wisconsin by far has the highest incarceration rate for black men in the country.
A particular challenge for these men is the high rate of recidivism in Wisconsin. A 2012 study says one-third of all Wisconsin offenders are incarcerated again after just three years.
For the now 57-year-old Jackson, who was last released from prison in 2003, he's adamant about not going back.
"I just said, 'This ain't for me,'" he says. "I've given them enough of my life. I've wasted enough of my life and I'm no dumb man by a long shot."
Jackson earned his GED and got his associate's degree in automotive servicing from MATC while in prison. He also attended "College Behind Walls" through UW-Green Bay, where he took up lithography and can run and maintain printing presses.
But Jackson says even with all this education, he can't get a job. He says his record gets in the way.
"As soon as they look at my prison record, they turn me around," he says. "You can't go to a factory no more and say, 'Well, can I fill out an application?' and tell them your skills and get paid for what you know. They don't do that no more."
Jackson says there are few social services to help him. Another Milwaukee man Robert Boston says some agencies help, but many other don't. He had success in finding a job through a social service agency after being released from more than 14 years in prison.
"Then I got sick for a couple days, got my doctor's excuse saying why I got sick, and then they fired me, so I'm feeling some kind of way right now," Boston says, adding he's taking a break from finding work for a month.
As for Jackson, his only option for work is to go through a temp agency to get a job that might pay only $6 or $7 an hour. "How you going to live on that?" he asks.
Instead, Jackson relies on getting work by word of mouth because of his reputation as a good, dependable worker. But even then, he runs into another road block: he doesn't have his driver's license.
Again, Jackson represents many black Milwaukee men, who don't have licenses or have had theirs revoked. UWM researcher Lois Quinn says many poor men can't afford to pay fines for driving with a tail light out, running a stop sign, or even parking on the street at night. As a result, they lose their licenses, making them what she calls "easy targets" for cops to pull over and possibly arrest for an additional crime, like drug possession. That's when, Quinn says, " their troubles with the law recycle again."
Jackson first lost his license in 1983, but kept driving anyway. Each time he was caught, the revocation or suspension period was made longer, but Jackson kept driving and hoped his luck wouldn't run out.
"How else you going to make your money?" he says. "It's a chance you got to take. How am I going to move my tools? How can I get from one job to another?"
Jackson has a chance to get his license back next month, but has an OWI he still needs to sort out. Plus he has to pay reinstatement fees and take his driving tests again.
"Right now, the money isn't that great that I can just go drop $500, $600 to get my license back," he says. "Then on top of that, I've got about $1,000 worth of tickets that need to be paid. There's no help for that."
Like Jackson, Deonte Tate, 22, is committed to staying out of prison. He's recently been released after serving 2.5 years for an armed robbery he committed when he was just 18. He says he was dealing with financial issues, and more.
"Things were going pretty bad for me at that time, so I had to survive," he says. "My auntie had just died. That took a lot out of me. When she died, part of me went with her."
When he got out, Tate says he was referred to the organization Project Return by his pastor. It helped him get a job with the Milwaukee Community Service Corps, doing landscaping and construction.
But then he stumbled after "a couple dirty UAs," or urine analyses, and he was locked up again for another six months.
"The first time I had what some call a 'reprobative mind,'" he says. "I really didn't care. I was going to do what I wanted to do, when I wanted to do it. I had a major attitude problem, which I'm always working on to make better. The second time, I'm tired. I'm tired of giving these people time out of my life. When you're locked in a 10-by-6 cell roughly 23 hours a day, it gets to be a little wearying."
So Tate made a game plan before he was released, a process he says is critical to staying out of prison.
"I'm just following up on it, taking it step by step to reach my goal," he says. He's been accepted into and will attend UW-Milwaukee, starting in January. He hopes to major in computer simulation and gaming, and minor in photography and film.
One day he wants to design his own video games, be his own boss, and hire other ex-felons "so they can work to support their families." He says it's important to give ex-felons a chance because it's so hard to make it after being in prison.
"Upon release, we're entering into a society that's designed for us to fail," he says. For example, Tate says he's not allowed to walk around with more than $100 in his pocket - meaning he can't carry around the paycheck he's earned.
"I sweated, I worked wear and tearing on my muscles and my body on a paycheck that I'm not allowed to walk around with," he says. "I mean, I understand no drugs and alcohol, because that's what gets most people into crimes or doing crimes or committing crimes. But as for me not being able to walk around with the money that I've earned, I think it's bull----."
This story is part of WUWM's six-month Project Milwaukee series: Black Men in Prison, in collaboration with Milwaukee Public Television.
Below you can hear more conversation with Larry Jackson as well as Dwayne McDonald, on the streets of an area often cited as having the highest number of black men in prison and the highest rate of recidivism— zip code 53206.