On Thursday, August 11, more than 250 people crowded into St. Francis Catholic Church in Milwaukee for the "Thirsting for Justice" event. No one complained about the heat and humidity after WISDOM President Rev. Willie Brisco reminded them that hundreds of people sit in windowless, solitary confinement cells with no air conditioning all day every day in the summer heat - not just for a couple of hours.
The crowd heard riveting testimonies from men who had recently been in the Fox Lake Correctional Institution, who spoke of water with a foul taste and unidentified bits of something solid floating in it, and who had no other option but to purchase water at a very high price from the canteen.
The problems with Corrections were not limited to the water. Those gathered heard from family members of men who have been eligible for parole for many years, but who are stuck in a broken system that does not let them earn their way home. They heard from family members of elderly and ill prisoners; families whose only hope is for the DOC to have the compassion to let their loved ones die at home. They heard from men and women who had been sent back to prison for real or imagined rule violations, even though they had committed no new crime.
A picture emerged of a deeply troubled Wisconsin Department of Corrections. The dysfunction of the DOC became even more apparent on Saturday. WISDOM members drove to Fox Lake with scores of cases of water that people had donated, so the men there could have at least some good water and so they would know that people on the "outside" were thinking of them. ROC Wisconsin campaign leaders had first contacted Fox Lake in June to request permission to deliver the water. The people on site told them that they would need to contact the central DOC office in Madison. In Madison, ROC leaders were referred to Communications Director Tristan Cook. Mr. Cook said he would find out. Leaders contacted Mr. Cook again in July, and again in August, and never received a response of any kind. ROC leadership then decided that, since DOC had not denied the request, we would go ahead with the water collection and deliver it. When WISDOM members arrived at Fox Lake, they identified themselves and asked if they could leave the truckload of water: they were told that they could. At the last moment, one WISDOM member said, "just to be sure... you will give this to the inmates, right?" The officer on duty asked them to wait a minute, then came back and said that if that was the intention, they could not leave the water. In the end, most of the water collected was given out the next day to volunteers who were cleaning up after the incidents of unrest in Milwaukee's Sherman Park neighborhood.
The only other disappointment of the week was that, of the dozens of area state legislators who were invited to Thirsting for Justice, not a single one could find the time in their schedule to come to hear about the dysfunction of the Department of Corrections, which causes great and unnecessary suffering to thousands of Wisconsinites and their families. The hundreds of ordinary citizens who did find the time pledged to contact their legislators and call on them to hold a bi-partisan summit meeting in Madison, with all stakeholders invited (including family members of people in prison and formerly-incarcerated people), to discuss the multiple systems failures in the Department of Corrections. These failures go far beyond the scandals of the Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake juvenile facilities.
We learned two things very clearly last week: We have a Department of Corrections with deep, deep problems that are causing a lot of harm to many people and that are costing us a lot of money; and we have a lot of people on the government payroll who don't seem very interested. Both of those things have to change.
Click here see photos of the Thirsting for Justice event and the attempted delivery of the water.
Click here to download the Fact Sheet used at the Thirsting for Justice event.
You can read two very interesting and important pieces here:
1) An article in The Atlantic, published today, on mass incarceration in Wisconsin that features EXPO Leaders William Harrell, and Beverly Walker.
2) An opinion piece by Mark Rice on Ban the Box.
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