GREEN BAY, WI -- An organization relying on former prisoners to be the voice of change in Wisconsin's prison system is growing.
This week, the new Green Bay chapter of the group "Ex-Prisoners Organizing" held their first meeting. The organization is an offshoot of Restoring Our Communities Wisconsin, and already has chapters in Milwaukee, Madison, Eau Claire, and the Fox Cities.
ROC Wisconsin is working to end mass incarceration in the state, and with EXPO's help, their actions are changing conversations, and policies, surrounding reform.
At a church in Green Bay Wednesday night, leaders of EXPO are putting those closest to the various problems within our reform system in charge of the solutions.
"We've become more punitive," says EXPO lead organizer Jerome Dillard, who went from incarceration to working with correctional institutions, and the prisoners they house. "Individuals aren't getting the programs [they need]."
According to Dillard, we can't wait for government intervention, or funding, to fix the problems facing our penal system.
Dillard says those problems include a lack of mental health services, "crime-less revocations" that prolong a prisoner's sentence, and the discrimination that often follows an ex-prisoner into post-prison life.
"Our message is, to those who were incarcerated, you have a voice. We have a voice," says Dillard, "[and] if anyone is going to be effective in helping individuals when they return to the community, it should be us."
Many of EXPO's battles have been uphill, including a failed attempt to cut Wisconsin's prison population in half--to 11,000--by 2015. But even that came with progress.
"Several studies projected large increases in Wisconsin's prison population," says EXPO organizer Mark Rice, explaining that various groups' efforts during that time did help stop the state's prison population from swelling, "so we were able to avoid large increases in the prison population."
Rice says changing the conversation has come with bi-partisan support.
"They've expanded funding for treatment alternatives to incarceration, for transitional jobs, which help formerly incarcerated people," explains Rice, "and other people that have barriers to employment find employment."
But leaders say reforms need to go further, especially with solitary confinement, and expanding access to mental health services in an effort to "correct" a behavior rather than "punish."
"United Nations now considers spending more than 15 consecutive days in solitary confinement to be torture," says Rice.
"A lot of individuals already have mental illness. That's how they wind up maybe violating an institutional rule," says Dillard. "Once they're in solitary confinement, they act out even more."
Many prison reform advocacy groups consider efforts, such as funding more mental health services, and "drug court," a solution with multiple positives for both prisoners and the state.
Experts say, while such alternatives to "prison time" often help directly address the underlying issues beneath what lands someone behind bars, they also help keep offenders from re-offending, and returning to a crowded prison system.
Others say it's not that simple. In fact, it's an issue that Brown County is actively debating right now, as Green Bay and County leaders discuss a multi-million dollar jail expansion in an effort to lessen the growing burden of Wisconsin's overpopulated jails and prisons.
THE "NEW JIM CROW"
According to EXPO leaders, one of the biggest issues facing ex-prisoners surrounds "post-release work," or finding an employer who will even consider hiring someone with a criminal history.
Rice says their efforts to end all forms of "structural discrimination" against the formerly incarcerated have had varying degrees of success in Wisconsin, and nationally.
In the Badger State, Madison recently pushed through a "ban the box" policy, which eliminated the criminal history box that potential employees needed to check, if applicable, on job applications. The idea behind this is to give people with a criminal past a chance to be considered for jobs.
In 2015, President Obama "banned the box" for all federal jobs, but not for federal contractors. It's an issue EXPO plans to take up with the next president.
But leaders are also remembering to keep their goals focused on the smaller, more intangible issues that follow ex-cons.
"There are a lot of people out there who have loved ones who they won't say anything about," says Dillard, "because of the stigma that's attached to people who are incarcerated."