Some words don’t mean what we think they mean. Consider the word “decimate,” often used to mean “destroy completely,” as in “Hurricane Matthew decimated entire communities in Haiti.” Yet decimate literally means to destroy one-tenth; it refers to a Roman military practice of killing one in ten men in a unit to punish mutiny or rebellion. It has come to have a more global connotation because, well, the loss of one in ten people strikes most of us as pretty catastrophic, nearly inconceivable. Think of how much worse a greater loss would be. What if the Romans had killed one in two, or more?
That’s the level of devastation in the northside Milwaukee neighborhood in zip code 53206, one of the poorest areas in the state. It also has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world. (Yes, you read that right.) 62% of the men in that neighborhood are incarcerated or under correctional supervision (probation or parole). The rate for the US as a whole is 2.8%.
Last week Children’s hosted a screening of a moving new documentary called Milwaukee 53206 which portrays the effect of mass incarceration on the people in this neighborhood. The film does not take a political stance on the issue of mass incarceration. Specifically, the high incarceration rates among African-American males (the population of 53206 is 97% black) is not portrayed as intentionally racist. Rather, for a variety of reasons, policies enacted from the 1970s through today have caused the incarceration rate to skyrocket, with a disproportionate impact on African-American communities. Take the war on drugs. Currently, more people are arrested for marijuana possession than for all violent crimes combined. Rates of arrest, prosecution, and sentencing for drugs are higher for blacks than whites despite similar rates of drug use. In Wisconsin, “truth in sentencing” legislation has resulted in people serving terms far longer than originally intended. And while over the course of American history the correctional pendulum has swung between emphasis on harsh punishment and meaningful rehabilitation, the system is more punitive than restorative at present, leaving those who have been imprisoned at some point at a long term disadvantage when they are released. No matter how well intended these policies might have been, the detrimental effects are no less real.
We had the added bonus of a panel discussion featuring three of the individuals in the film after the showing. What struck me the most after seeing the film was the impact on children. Dennis Walton, Outreach Coordinator for the Milwaukee Fatherhood Initiative, described a prison class he recently ran. Among the 50 men in his group, they had 210 children. 210 children who have therefore suffered one of the most devastating adverse childhood events you can imagine, the loss of a parent, with all of the attendant short- and long-term consequences. Indeed, in 53206, more than half of all children can expect to experience the same loss. Thanks to mass incarceration, that community is worse than decimated.