We have known about the over-policing of Black and brown communities there for a long time, experts say.
Rattling the Bars, hosted by former Black Panther and political prisoner Marshall “Eddie” Conway, puts the voices of the people most harmed by our system of mass incarceration at the center of our reporting on the fight to end it.
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Eddie: A study in 2013 shows that Wisconsin incarcerated more black men than any other state in the United States in spite of the fact that the black population is only 6.5%. Also, Wisconsin has a very high rate of incarceration for indigenous people. So in light of the recent events in Kenosha, the Department of Corrections building was burned to the ground. And I have with me today, two people that work with the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee to talk about Wisconsin, its prison population, and what’s going on inside the prison in terms of organizing the incarcerated workers. So joining me today is Robert Thiebaud and Ron Schroeder. Thank you for joining me, Robert and Ron.
Robert Thiebaud: Thank you, Eddie.
Ron Schroeder: Thank you, Eddie.
Eddie: The first question I want to address to Robert though, is what has changed since the 2013 study in terms of the incarceration rate for people of color and conditions in the prison system.
Robert Thiebaud: In Wisconsin, very little has changed. The numbers have held about even, or maybe gone up a little bit. Other states have made some significant changes to reduce prison populations, but Wisconsin as resisted all those changes. Part of it was the administration, Department of Corrections and the Governor in our state until two years ago were not interested in it, in a system that developed where, especially people of color, black, Hispanic, native Americans in Wisconsin were very highly targeted, incarcerated at much higher levels than anybody else. That’s really helped keep our prisons full. The other thing that we have is a routine in the state where probation officers can revoke someone’s extended supervision, to use the right term, for a rule violation, any little thing, not a new breaking the law, just not following some rule and that keeps the prisons pretty full.
The last numbers I have that I’m sure of, 2018, of the adults who were incarcerated that year, 45% of them were not new cases, but people who were being revoked by the probation officers without a new trial, just sent back for more prison time. So we’re going nowhere.
Eddie: Ron, can you tell me what role did the former governor, Scott Walker, play in this crazy level of incarceration?
Ron Schroeder: I can. Governor Scott Walker co-wrote the truth in sentencing law, which means a person spends day for day in prison without any opportunity for early release for good time. In addition to that, under Scott Walker’s administration, the state has allocated more funds for corrections than it has for higher education. The state spends more money to incarcerate than to educate. And the same applies for treatment, a vast majority of African Americans are arrested and incarcerated for low level drug offenses. And the state, especially under Scott Walker’s administration has chosen to spend more money on corrections, imprisoning minorities than it has for rehabilitating.
Eddie: You know, I mean, everybody across the nation is so aware of what happened in Kenosha, but recently the Department of Correction was burned down. What happened, and I would just like to just have some opinions. Why did the situation get to that point? The boiling point that has led to all of this stuff going on now?
Robert Thiebaud: Yeah, I think there’s two questions in there. Well, as Ron was mentioning Governor Walker, actually, a lot of what he started was when he was a state senator, so we’re going back to the late 90s where they started increasing penalties and locking people up and filling up the jails. So it’s been going on a long time. And then what I was saying before about the probation agents, being able to do basically whatever they wanted, that’s been a real hot point with anybody, not only the people who are on probation, but their families because all of a sudden somebody is just locked up on a whim or what seems to be a whim.
Black lives matter we keep hearing and that’s focused on what’s happening on the streets with the police. But it also goes into the prisons because the whole criminal justice system starts with the police on the streets, but it goes to the prisons too. So there’s, I think, why that office was just a target, was a site for the anger to be brought out on. As to why we got to the flash point, I think it’s because the people in that city are tired of nothing changing.
All this discussion for, seems forever, but especially the last few months, and we still have people being shot for no reason, really. And people like the Kenosha Police and the Sheriff’s Department don’t have body cameras. They didn’t think it was important. It’s in the budget for 2022. So very definitely the people were angry because nothing’s changing.
Ron Schroeder: Bob is correct. What happened in Kenosha is a culmination, is a result of a culmination of years and years of oppression and of police officers shooting young unarmed black men. And it turns out to be that young person’s word against the cops. And there’s an appearance or a wide belief that young black men don’t stand a chance when it’s their word against the police officers. Make no mistake, Eddie, Bob, I nor IWOC condone violence of any sort, but we certainly reject violence and abuse of authority, any type of excessive violence towards anyone, especially young unarmed people.
Eddie: Both of you all can answer this because I’m curious. Talk a little bit about the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee. What is it and why did you all start it?
Ron Schroeder: Oh, it’s just that, an organizing committee designed specifically for people that are incarcerated. We feel it’s important to identify the problems within the Wisconsin prison systems and to alert people in authority, mainly prison wardens, the Secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Corrections and our lawmakers of the various abuses that they’re subjected to. It’s widely perceived as modern day slavery. And what I mean by that, or as an example is many incarcerated adults in Wisconsin earn $8 a month. And a tube of toothpaste this year can cost as high as $8 a tube. So to put that into perspective, if a person in the community is earning $10 an hour, $400 a week, that would be the equivalent of a citizen paying $1,600 for a tube of toothpaste.
It’s understandable why it’s widely perceived as modern day slavery and IWOC is doing the best that we can to shed light on these injustices.
Robert Thiebaud: For background, Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee was formed in 2014. It’s a part of the Industrial Workers of the World, which was founded in 1914 or something like that. And it was, as Ron was saying, it was founded to give a voice to the people incarcerated because they can complain in the system and the system just rejects their complaints. They can complain to the warden. They don’t have a voice. I think one of the biggest things I see IWOC doing is creating a voice outside, making people aware, helping families and other advocates, if you will, community organizations bring pressure with the administrations. In some cases, the Secretary of the Department of Corrections doesn’t necessarily know what a warden in a particular prison is doing. He thinks they’re following certain procedures like wearing masks for COVID and the people aren’t. So being a voice for the people who don’t have it, is probably the biggest thing we do, I feel.
Eddie: What can the public do? Family, loved ones, supporters or just people that’s concerned about conditions? What can they do if you got some advice.
Ron Schroeder: Eddie, the vast majority of people are not aware of the conditions and the abuses that occur Wisconsin prisons until they themselves are incarcerated or someone close to them is incarcerated. We have a wonderful example of a professional woman who recently joined IWOC. She knew nothing about the conditions and the abuses until a relative of hers was incarcerated and then her eyes became very wide open and she has become a very fierce advocate, not just for her relative, but for others who have incarcerated loved ones that are facing the same type of abuses.
So to answer your question, what can people on the ground do if they don’t have someone that they know is incarcerated, we strongly encourage them to join an organization such as IWOC and get involved, be a voice. Everyone contributes in different ways. One of my favorite ways of explaining this, tongue and cheek, my definition of a republican is someone who has never had a family member involved in the correction system because once you have somebody involved in the system, your opinion changes very quick.
The best thing we can do, and we’re actually blessed, at least in southeast Wisconsin and Madison areas, we have a number of organizations that are trying to make changes. ACLU in Wisconsin has been storming capitol because our republican assembly was still trying to build new prisons as a February. At one point they say they’re going to change things, but at another point they building new prisons. Well, made enough noise that that bill got killed. Prison Action Milwaukee is another group I work with that tries to work with families because the families can be almost even more isolated out and alone, trying to figure out what to do and how to get things done. Wisdom Expo, Project Return, we have a whole bunch of organizations.
If anybody wants to find out more, they can contact any of these people. If they get more informed, they’ll get angry and they’ll start getting on phones, taking a look at who they vote for, helping to make change, which right now it sounds like maybe we’re going to be able to do some of that. At least we’re hoping so. So that’s what I hope can come from some of these discussions. There’s some real change.
Eddie: Okay. Thanks for joining me, Robert, Ron.
Ron Schroeder: Thank you. Eddie.
Robert Thiebaud: Thank you for having us today, Eddie.
Eddie: Thank you for joining this episode of Rattling the Bars.