“There are so many brilliant minds locked away in prison. A lot of them may very well never see the light of day … Some may. Not only are they bright, there are some very compassionate young brothers behind those walls,” says Caliph Muab-el, founder and president of Breaking Barriers Mentoring, Inc, which empowers at-risk youth and young men and women in the community to make positive life choices that enables them to maximize their personal potential. “If given a chance to come into this community, they could be powerful assets.”
Without a doubt, the hyper-incarceration of black men in the United States is the most pressing civil rights issue of our time. Madison365 talked extensively with four men who have spent quite a bit of time in all kinds of prisons and have dedicated their lives to keeping young African American men out of prison. That talk yielded two truths: One, the prison system is built around (and is profiting massively from) black labor. And, two, it’s easy to get into the system, but it’s almost impossible to get out.
In the United States, African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites. There are more African American men incarcerated in the U.S. than the total prison populations in India, Argentina, Canada, Lebanon, Japan, Germany, Finland, Israel and England combined.
Closer to home, Wisconsin has the highest rate of black male incarceration in the nation. “In all honesty, America is locking up some of its brightest … some of the most brilliant people I have ever seen,” says Jerome Dillard, Jail Re-entry Coordinator for the Dane County Jail. “The impact of this mass incarceration has been devastating to black families on a whole.”
A disproportionate percentage of these people locked up are young black men in the prime of their lives.
“These young men bring history, they bring context, they bring knowledge, they bring diversity, they bring wisdom, they bring perspective,” Muab-el says. “We’re missing out on a lot of that because of the systemic structures that put up this smokescreen that says, ‘Aw. They’re all bad. Lock ‘em’ up. Throw away the key. They are sub-human.’ We’re really missing out on the richness of humanity.”
Turning around the epidemic that is the mass incarceration of black men is going to be difficult. Mostly because there is incredible money behind keeping them locked up. According to a study by the Progressive Labor Party: “The private contracting of prisoners for work fosters incentives to lock people up. Prisons depend on this income. Corporate stockholders who make money off prisoners’ work lobby for longer sentences, in order to expand their workforce. The system feeds itself.”
Prisons have become huge business. From 1980 to 2008, the number of people incarcerated in America quadrupled-from roughly 500,000 to 2.3 million people, according the NAACP. Private prisons for adults were virtually non-existent until the early 1980s, but the number of prisoners in private prisons increased by approximately 1600% between 1990 and 2009.
“I was in during the prison explosion and I could not believe how many prisons they were building,” Dillard says. “There’s a saying: If you build it, they will fill it. And they filled them all real quick. And they filled the prisons with predominantly low-level drug offenders who were black.”
The second major hurdle to combatting hyper-incarceration has been the decline and decay of the United States cities where you will find a majority of African Americans living in social and economic isolation. Back in the day, those who could not afford college could survive and even thrive on a working-class blue-collar job. Today’s $7.75/hour at Wal-Mart or McDonald’s will not get you anywhere.
But hustling will, though.
“I work with a lot of young people and so many feel that drug dealing was the only thing that they had. They were making so much money and at such a young age. It was so attractive. But these laws and these enhancements got so out of control,” Dillard says. “So many got caught up in the scene and they weren’t even doing anything. Some people were getting time for just being ‘associated’. Many of those I witnessed coming into Oxford [Correctional Facility] were just look-outs. All they were getting is gym shoes and maybe a little pay.”
Muab-el is a little more direct about that inescapable allure.
“When a drug dealer says to you, ‘Shorty, do you want to go and sit in that spot over there … you got $500 coming today!’ and your momma can’t pay the bills, daddy gone to prison, your sister needs food …. What am I gonna do?” asks Muab-el. “I’m gonna sit in the spot. I’m gonna chill. I’m gonna hold it down. Give me a gat and I’m good….”
“The fact is, you can say whatever you want to a young brother,” interrupts Dillard, “but when you are making that kind of bank at that age … and the rest of your other prospects are so bleak … it doesn’t really matter. You’re gonna miss me with that. It just doesn’t matter.”
Hustling is the new industry
Dillard, 61, grew up on the south side of Chicago in an era where he watched his mom and stepfather lose their jobs to plant closings and jobs leaving the inner cities. The ‘60s and ‘70s saw the massive loss of jobs in America’s inner cities and it crunched the lowest on the ladder – blacks – the hardest. “That put hundreds of thousands of predominantly African Americans who lived in those cities out of work,” Dillard remembers. “In that process, I witnessed an epidemic of drug dealing and drug use and a rise in gangs in the same communities that were once doing well.”
Hustling became the industry in those communities. “That’s who we saw with the money and great lifestyle. That was attractive to me as a youngster,” Dillard says. “I will never forget shaking the hand of the guy who was one of the bigger pimps – I grew up on 63rd street where there was a ton of hustling – and seeing that. I looked at him and I looked at what my folks were going through and it inspired me to be a hustler. I felt like that was the only way out. The only way of really surviving.
“That’s where I had that paradigm shift,” Dillard adds. “This is what we are handed and this is the only way we can make it. So I’m going to do this to the best of my ability.”
The money. The clothes. The cars. The women. The cool side of hustling. It was all so glamorous and exciting.
The bad side of hustling Dillard would – like everybody sooner or later does — find out about later. He served three separate prison sentences – one in the state of Illinois, one in the federal prison system, and one in the state of Wisconsin – all drug related.
“During my time locked up, I witnessed thousands of young men coming through prison with just tons and tons of time – 20 years, 30 years for drugs. Many of them very young men,” Dillard says. “Young men coming into prison with that kinds of time is troubling to me. I questioned that. In my own spirit, I just felt that this was some form of genocide. We’re incarcerating these guys for the prime of their lives. You can’t reproduce. You can’t raise a family. You can’t imagine that American dream of being a homeowner and a business owner. I made a decision that once I returned to the community that it was my obligation to give back to the community.”
Even when they got out, Dillard kept seeing people he knew go right back into prison. Dillard ended up going back himself. Twice.
“I was released to the many barriers that many face now. Losing many of the rights that we lose as formerly incarcerated citizens. The hopelessness that comes with not being able to get a job, not being able to vote, not being able to live with someone who was dear to me who wanted to take me in in public housing,” Dillard says. “So I went back to what was familiar to me – hustling. It was something that I could do and I felt like I did it well.”
“During my time locked up, I witnessed thousands of young men coming through prison with just tons and tons of time – 20 years, 30 years for drugs. Many of them very young men. Young men coming into prison with that kinds of time is troubling to me. I questioned that. In my own spirit, I just felt that this was some form of genocide. We’re incarcerating these guys for the prime of their lives. You can’t reproduce. You can’t raise a family. You can’t imagine that American dream of being a homeowner and a business owner. I made a decision that once I returned to the community that it was my obligation to give back to the community.”
During Dillard’s last stint in prison is when a lifer got ahold of him and sat him down for a frank talk. And sat him down again. And again. The lifer gave Dillard the bad news that he needed to identify his anti-social friends and never see them again. “Once I got out I would always go back to the same community and hang out with the same people and it wasn’t long before I was doing the same thing,” Dillard remembers. “The lifer charged me with identifying those people. And at the end of the conversation he said: ‘It just can’t be those same people. They can’t be an option.’
“I took it to heart,” Dillard adds. “I began to develop a plan for life … and I was going to stick to the plan… no matter what.”
Dillard was determine to never go back again. After he was released in 1995, he soon began a long career of working with ex-offenders starting as Human Services Program Coordinator for the Wisconsin Department of Health Service and later as president of Voices Beyond Bars. In 2008, he was awarded the prestigious City of Madison Martin Luther King Jr. Humanitarian Award for his work in re-entry.
Dillard began his work as Jail Re-Entry Coordinator for the Dane County Jail last year. It’s a job perfectly suited to his life experiences and expertise.
“I’ve made a commitment to youth and trying to get them on the right track,” he says. “But I’ve also made a commitment to pulling the mask off this monster we call mass incarceration and educating individuals around how we got to where we got to today.”
“My sons are my angels”
Anthony Cooper’s mother moved up to Madison from Chicago for a better life.
“I tried to become a man at a young age. When I look back over my life, I realize that I was in the same situation that a lot of young African American boys find themselves in. The family is hurting. I need to try to do something to fix this,” Cooper remembers. “But at 14 years old, what can you really fix? There were times when I tried to work a full-time job. Working always would end because you wouldn’t make any real headway.”
Working morphed into hustling. “I’ve been around hustlers all my life from Chicago to Madison. I used to be the kid that was like, ‘That’s not my thing. That’s not my thing.’ But after a while, it became my thing,” Cooper says.
In Sommerset Circle on Madison’s south side in the ‘90s, there were plenty of bad influences.
“I would try to do right but I didn’t really know how. I didn’t have the mentors. I didn’t have the village concept,” Cooper says. “You knew the drug dealers that were out there. You knew the alcoholics. You knew the hoes. You knew what it was. It was easy to fall back into it.”
Cooper would sell drugs on the side to help out his mom and help out his own situation. “I stopped for a while. Then I went back to it because after a while that’s all you really see,” he says. “That was the only thing that I saw as positive and going forward and doing something like, ‘Oh, now I got a little money.’ At that time, I felt, it’s on. I already had the connections. It was easy for me to fall back into and I became the drug dealer that tried to live both sides.”
Eventually, he got set up and sent away to prison. When he came out two years later, Cooper was living in a halfway house. He wanted to work but kept running into roadblocks when potential employers found out he had been convicted of felony drug offenses. “My first job interview the man said, ‘How do I know that you’re not going to sell drugs in my place?’ I said, ‘Sir. This is what I’m here for. I’m trying to do something different.’ I didn’t get the job,” Cooper says.
He remembers staying in a cramped, one-bedroom efficiency with his sons. “We all stayed on one futon bed,” smiles Cooper. “We still laugh about it today.”
He got the courage to go back and get his high school diploma and get his associate’s degree. Now, Cooper helps people who were once in his shoes as the director of re-entry services for the Nehemiah Center for Urban Leadership Development. Cooper assists formerly incarcerated people find housing, offers support and mentoring, and trains them in job interviewing and other skills to help them get work. Cooper also organizes weekly meetings of a peer support group called “Man Up” for men who have been incarcerated.
“I’ve seen brothers come and go. Most of the guys that I was locked up with went right back in. My sons are my angels, though. I wanted something better for them,” Cooper says. “They helped me change. If I didn’t try to do something different and give it my 100 percent all …. I failed them. And worse, they are going to follow my footsteps and end up exactly like I did.”
“People were making money from my ignorance”
Aaron Hicks’s story is a little different, but also has many similarities. Hailing from the east side of Milwaukee not far from Rufus King High School, his childhood was troubled, to say the least. His mother was a quadriplegic who had multiple sclerosis. “I never had a man involved in my life. Period. And then when there was, he was really abusive – physically towards me and sexually towards my sisters,” Hicks remembers. “As time went on, I never really seen any work ethic or how to be a man modeled to me. I saw a lot of drug dealing and pimping. As my sister got older, she was hoe-ing. It was common in my life … something I was seeing on the regular.”
Hicks gravitated to the streets immediately. “By the time I was 12, I was taken out of the house. I was already using drugs, smoking weed, drinking. That led me into group homes, foster homes, detention centers,” he remembers. “That’s how my life went for a long period of time. I’d be out for a little bit and then I would be back in the group home, back in the foster home, back in detention. I was angry. And I acted out on my anger which led me to more and more trouble.”
The first prison he went to was at Fox Lake Correctional Institution. He was sentenced to 16 years. “My mom died while I was in prison – she was only 49. My wife told me that she met another guy over the Internet and she was going to take my daughter with her,” Hicks remembers. “All of these things were coming at me. In the midst of that it built my relationship with the Lord which, looking back, probably saved me.”
Hicks, 42, like many formerly incarcerated, could see that people were economically benefitting from the mass incarceration around him and were using prisons as a strategy for economic growth. In this sense, the incarceration system was eerily similar to the system of slavery. “I realized people were making money from my ignorance and I started to put that in my forefront,” Hicks says. “This just can’t happen.
“Everything is strictly business in prison,” adds Hicks, who spent 12 years of his life in Oshkosh Correctional Institution, a medium-security prison an hour and a half northeast of Madison. “Everything is for sale… Everything. I quickly realized that prison was a business and it wasn’t about correcting a behavior. It was about people making money.”
He began to share his thoughts and feelings on this with people around him in prison. “What’s even scarier about prison is that they can kill you. And they will justify it. ‘He was resisting.’ ‘He tried to kill himself,’” Hicks says. “We are dying out in the community where there are cameras everywhere. Imagine a place where there are no cameras or where they can get shut off ‘accidentally.’”
Hicks has been out since 2010 and is now the facilitator of Nehemiah Community Development’s “Man-Up” program. “I just share my experiences in my life and I try to create an atmosphere where men can be transparent,” he says. “I try to talk about issues we don’t normally address.”
Maximum-security prison at age 15
At 34, Muab-el is the baby of the group and almost half of his life has been spent behind bars.
“A piece of my story is in all of their stories and that speaks to the raw dynamics that we live in today,” says Muab-el. “All of us who come from extraordinary different backgrounds, family dynamics, and [different] generations … that says a lot about the systemic set-up to make sure that same system stays intact and in place and continues to have the same effect if does for generations to come.”
Muab-el’s family bounced around poor areas of Chicago where his father and his relatives was entrenched in gang activity that included drugs, racketeering, gun trafficking, and prostitution. His relatives, he says, were Vice Lords and Black Stones and what he saw day-to-day was nothing but bleakness and trouble.
His family moved to Milwaukee at age 8 because they thought life would be better. The family lived in a shelter for a while. “Milwaukee was rough, too, and we ended up getting into the streets again,” Muab-el remembers. “When we moved to 29th and Walnut, it reminded me very much of Chicago – gang violence, wars, lots of drugs. That was heroin central. And I was sucked in. I soon became addicted to the grind. It was only a matter of time before I was in prison.”
“I was the first 15 year old that they had seen so young in the system. Soon after that, it all changed. I started seeing way more 15, 16, and 17 year olds. It created a new cycle and a new age. They became comfortable with that child-in-a-maximum-security-prison narrative. And once they saw that the public embraced it, they just went crazy with it.”
He was a teenager when the Milwaukee Circuit Court sentenced him to 15 years for reckless injury with the use of a dangerous weapon in 1996. “They determined that I was going to be max[imum-security prison] at 15 years old,” he remembers. “I was the first 15 year old that they had seen so young in the system. Soon after that, it all changed. I started seeing way more 15, 16, and 17 year olds. It created a new cycle and a new age. They became comfortable with that child-in-a-maximum-security-prison narrative. And once they saw that the public embraced it, they just went crazy with it.”
Muab-el served 10 consecutive years in solitary confinement. “I couldn’t get out of there. That was a scary place to be,” he says. “I’ve seen brothers end up dead there.”
All in all, he entered Wisconsin’s adult corrections system in 1997 as a 15-year-old child and came out in 2012. “My mother died at age 35 while I was in prison. That did something to me because my mother was my everything. She was my best friend,” he says
Muab-el was able to surround himself with positive people after he was released from prison. “I had built some networks while I was in prison getting ready for this,” Muab-el remembers. “I knew I was coming home. I didn’t want to come home to nothing.”
He joined Madison Organizing in Strength, Equality and Solidarity (MOSES), a local affiliate of the statewide interfaith organization WISDOM that advocates for the rights of incarcerated individuals. He founded Breaking Barriers Mentoring, Inc, which empowers at-risk youth. He sat on the gang taskforce for the Dane County Board. He organizes with other activists to create fair policymaking on criminal justice issues. He works with kids to help them avoid the mistakes he made. As a Sufi minister and scholar of Moorish Science, he gives talks about universal spirituality.
“I’ve done a lot of networking and public speaking and fundraising. Here I am today trying to make an impact on our youth and not let them go down that bad path,” Muab-el says. “I understand the mindset they have because I’ve been there. That helps me connect with them and pull information out of them that the average person couldn’t.”
“Generations of madness continues to happen”
All four men are currently working tirelessly to make sure that young African American men don’t make the same mistakes that they made. They are fully aware of the uphill battle they face to try and change the dismal incarceration numbers. As they work with young people, trust is always a huge issue.
“There were people who may have said things to me here and there who wanted to change my trajectory in my life. But if you are dealing with a child who doesn’t know you from Adam – I don’t know if you’re trying to hurt me or if you have my best interest at heart,” Cooper says. “I don’t know what that kind of trust looks like or feels like. There’s so much that goes on in a young man’s mind.”
“That’s right,” adds Hicks. “And you can be telling me all the right stuff … but my man over here is shining. He has things. He looks good. I want to look good. I want to shine.”
Whatever you want to say about the hustler, Cooper says, he is showing young black men consistency. “You see this guy flossing, right? That’s someone who’s being consistent and is always in your face. All the time. That’s in your face,” he says. “We have to also make sure that we’re giving our young men that same kind of consistency to do the right thing. We need to be relentless. And not just our youth. It’s the grown men as well. Some grown men are stuck at 14.”
Solutions? Strategies for the future? The four men have a mountain of experience and wisdom between them all. “Unfortunately, the criminal justice system doesn’t look to us when they are looking for solutions to a problem that has most affected us,” Dillard says. “This is stuff that we have lived, that we know well, and that we want to help fix.”
But are they even looking for — or interested in — a solution?
“That’s the question!” all four respond, almost in unison.
But the elder Dillard, whom the others endearingly refer to as “Old Blood,” still feels like there is reason to be optimistic.
“I am seeing some movement. It’s slow. It’s like a ship. It’s not obvious; you can’t feel it… but it’s happening,” he says. “Part of it is financial. Part of it is politics. People are talking about sentencing reform. The Fair Chance Act doesn’t have a lot of teeth but it’s out there. Obama releasing 6,000 [inmates early from prison — the largest one-time release of federal prisoners]. People are finally acknowledging the disparities between crack cocaine and powder cocaine sentencing. Little things are changing. I’m hearing the need for reform from Republican politicians even.
“Little things tell me that they are tweaking with it, but it’s going to take real reform to straighten this out,” he adds. “But it’s going to put a lot of people out of work [in the prison system].”
Whatever change that will happen locally is going to require a movement from the greater Madison community. That means affluent white people playing a role.
“It’s all connected. Generations of madness continues to happen. It’s still happening to this day,” Cooper says. “People ask: how can we fix this? We have to make sure that we are consistent in our efforts and in the work that we do to make sure that we are truly about bringing about change.
“We have to keep not only challenging the system, but we have to keep challenging ourselves to do better and want better … and not just for individuals, but for our community,” he adds. “For those who don’t quite understand it, we need to teach them a way of growth.”
Each year, 500-700 ex-offenders leave prison and return to Dane County. Hundreds more complete their jail sentences and return to the community. The majority of these ex-offenders are African American men. These offenders are at high risk of becoming homeless – and that increases their risk of failing at re-entry and being returned to jail or prison.
“We need to research more and figure out things for ourselves. We’re in an age of media and everything we read in the paper, hear on the radio, or see online we believe and it creates all of these anxieties in people,” says Muab-el. “Those fear and anxieties control people. As long as that happens, we don’t have a fighting chance. The media and the system says that we are bad people and that we can’t reform.
“We need to sit down and have more conversations like this with people who are part of the struggle and are still part of the struggle,” he adds. “Get more insight. Learn more. Understand more. Listen to ideas. Listen to solutions. Listen to recommendations. Those things come from a place of wisdom and experience. Those are the things that are valuable.”
Many people in Madison, with its increasing segregation and nation’s worst racial disparities, need to recognize the problem first before they can truly start working on it.
“It’s not a problem that happened over night and it’s going to take some tenacity to fix it. It’s going to take some courageousness,” Muab-el says. “It will take some people being willing to step outside of the box. People willing to make the effort.
“If the community’s response is the same as the system’s response — then we have no hope,” he adds. “But … if the community’s response is — ‘These are people who are just like us and they are going to be rejoining the community, it’s better to invest as opposed to restrict’ — then we might have a chance. Once that type of reality is at the forefront of everybody’s mind, they will be able to see the productivity that will come from that. Embracing all of our citizens — especially those formerly incarcerated — will make the city better. Much better. In so many ways.”