In their own ways, Milwaukee mothers Afriqah Imani and Barbara Robinson have both lost sons – Imani’s were killed by gunfire, and Robinson’s are serving hundred-year sentences in Wisconsin prisons.
Yet even though they’ve encountered the criminal justice system in decidedly different ways, both women feel the system – from the courts to corrections – is broken. Now both are actively working to fix it.
Their stories especially resonate here – in a city where a recent surge in gun violence has the mayor urging young black men to make better choices, in a state that tops the nation in the rate of incarcerating black men.
But for these two mothers, the struggle isn’t statistical, it’s personal.
From fury to forgiveness
About 15 years ago, Imani’s two sons were killed just nine months apart. While the search for one son’s killer continues, Imani says her other boy’s killer is in prison.
“He killed my son apparently for no reason, shot him in the back three times with a sawed off shotgun,” she says.
For a while, Imani felt the man was cocky about his crime and deserved to be locked up. But over time, Imani says, as she began to work with restorative justice programs, she prayed for forgiveness for him.
Now she’s working to get him released.
“I view him as a young man who was in his early 20s who done a really stupid thing,” she says. “Even though it cost my son his life and my family a great deal of pain, you have to learn to forgive people.”
Imani knows that not everyone could forgive their son’s killer as she has. But she’s frustrated that the corrections system doesn’t seem to recognize the progress she’s seen him make, and that while her words helped put him away, she can’t seem to help get him out.
“Every time he goes up for parole, he gets denied,” she says. “I don't understand why because he has completed everything they have asked him to do. He's gone beyond that.”
Living a “horror”
Robinson has been living a “horror” since two of her sons were arrested and sentenced to a hundred-plus years behind bars.
A longtime Milwaukee police officer, she says she raised her boys right and never imagined such a thing could happen to her family. A 23-year veteran of the military, Robinson put her sons in private schools in the Milwaukee suburbs. Her boys wanted for nothing; upon graduation, she bought her then 18-year-old son a car.
He was driving this car when he was involved in an armed robbery with two of his friends. One friend shot an off-duty police officer, and though Robinson’s son left the friend behind, he was charged with being a party to attempted homicide.
“My son had no prior record, no involvement with the police,” Robinson says. “This is a very harsh punishment.”
Seeing his brother was in trouble, Robinson’s then 17-year-old confessed to the crime – hoping he could then clear his name at trial. Instead he was convicted as well.
The older brother was sentenced to 122 years in prison; the younger brother, to 114 years.
Robinson calls the sentences “unjust” and “ridiculous.”
“We never know what we're going to do until it actually happens to you,” she says. “Before this happened to my sons, I could have said, ‘Well, yeah, any person that commits a crime deserves to be locked up,’ but I would never say for that long.”
After almost 20 years, she says her sons deserve to be released.
“They served their time and it’s time for them to come home. That's justice,” she says. “They realize they made a mistake, they made a bad choice in life, but they should not be held for the rest of their life. Everyone deserves a second chance.”
Solutions for second chances
But both women say the current corrections system makes it difficult for those second chances to occur.
Imani says she understands that the police and the corrections system have to protect the community, but she wishes there was more of a focus on rehabilitation – and that if you do the work to prove you’ve changed, it should be recognized.
“No one deserves to be written off. I don't care who you are, you're still a human being,” she says. “He’s shown me that he's ready to come back to society. I think he's learned from the mistake he made...I’d rather just see you come out, and do better, and be a father to your daughter who’s now well and grown.”
Imani also wants more recreational spaces for young people as a “way to keep kids off the street.”
“This is the issue: We have no roller-skating rinks – Brookfield is the closest. There are no movie theaters in the inner city. What is there positive for kids to do?” she says. “They turn to gangs, prostitution, gun violence. So we have to find a way to help our community in order to help our children, because the next generation might not be a generation.”
As for her son’s killer, Imani has plans to help him adjust to society once he is released. She says there are many challenges facing men who are returning to society from prison.
“Why can’t I come out here and get a job? Why do I have difficulty even getting an ID? Why do I have difficulty going to get as much as a cell phone and now my PO has to track every call,” she says. “You have done your time…Why do we make it difficult when you come out? This is why people go back.”
For her part, Robinson says “the problem in Wisconsin is not going to change because the people in authority have not yet changed.”
She says those who work in the criminal justice system - the police, judges, prosecutors, wardens, parole officers – no longer see the people they put away as people, calling them “dogs” and “thugs.” Then, that dehumanization, she says, extends into the broader society.
“Our state of Wisconsin has become so disassociated with people and they forget they are human beings, and the only time it makes any difference is when it's you,” she says.
Robinson puts the onus on the community to help inmates returning to society.
“Everybody in the community that has anything to say and aren’t doing anything about it are just as guilty and just as wrong as the inmate coming out,” she says.
Robinson says she visits many of the men that she as a police officer helped put away, and she hopes to one day open a building to house people returning from prison and help them re-adjust.
“I want these people out. I want them out. Judges that sentence these guys intend them to get out, so with DOC holding people in past their mandatory release or not letting them out because they don’t have any place to go, they can come to me,” she says.