Voices From the Inside Out: On prison and race

July 7, 2014

From the July-August 2014 issue of News & Letters

by Robert Taliaferro

Race has always been at the forefront of this nation since its founding. It seems ironic that the generation that produced the country’s first Black president is also the generation that is seeing the advances made in civil rights during the last century fade away.

Nowhere is racism more singularly applied than in the numbers of people of color who are confined: about two-thirds of the 2.3 million people currently confined in the U.S. are people of color.


According to an April 2013 report by the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, “Wisconsin’s Mass Incarceration of African American Males: Workforce Challenges for 2013,” Wisconsin incarcerates Black men at a larger percentage than any state in the country: nearly 7 percentage points more than the national average, and nearly 3 percentage points more than its nearest rival, Oklahoma.

This is an issue that was supposed to have been addressed under former Governor Doyle after he signed an Executive Order in 2007 noting the “disparate treatment people of color receive in the criminal justice system ‘throughout the nation.’” The final report filed in 2008, “Commission on Racial Disparities in the Wisconsin Justice System,” though it consisted of an august group of committee members, when taken in its entirety seems more an exercise in how to baffle the public with bullshit rather that dazzle them with brilliance.

There are some interesting facts in the report: In Wisconsin, approximately 15% of the population are people of color, while about 59% of those incarcerated are people of color. Also, in every department, from revocations to residents in prisons (regardless of whether the statistic reflects juveniles or adults), people of color top the list except when it comes to “alternatives to incarceration, community supervision, or probation” where white offenders are in the majority.


More disturbing is the scope of the report and what it did not discuss. One has to question any “allegedly extensive investigation” that fails to include the parties that the report is meant to address.

Wisconsin now incarcerates about 22,000 prisoners in six maximum, eight medium and a number of minimum security facilities, yet only racial disparities at one medium facility were reported. The University of Wisconsin’s report, filed five years later, gives a more chilling picture and the most chilling aspect is how incarceration is affecting the social and cultural dynamics of one area of Milwaukee.

According to the report, “The heaviest concentrations” of released and incarcerated adults were in Milwaukee’s north side and near south side neighborhoods. In the poorest neighborhoods, incarceration has become a way of life, and two-thirds of the incarcerated African-American men hailing from Milwaukee come from six zip codes surrounding the Center City, while 90% percent hail from 15 zip codes that reflect the racial and economic segregation of Milwaukee County.

One of the hardest hit neighborhoods had so many Black males who had been previously or currently incarcerated, that nearly every residential block had multiple numbers of people with prison records.

Financially, Wisconsin allocates more money to corrections than it does to the whole University of Wisconsin higher education system.

The vestiges of slavery will forever be a stain on the moral character of this nation, and pretending that it never existed or that we have evolved to a point that race is not really an issue exacerbates and perpetuates racial disparity. Only through a comprehensive dialogue can we shine the light on those issues and perhaps realize that we are more alike than we’d like to believe.

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