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by Isiah Holmes, Wisconsin Examiner
March 30, 2022

This story also appeared in Wisconsin Examiner

Activists from Ex-Incarcerated People Organizing (EXPO) and legislators gathered under the same roof Tuesday for Empathy and Action Day. In the Capitol Building, activists learned about approaching elected officials about issues of incarceration in the state. The event took place as Republican elected officials continue pushing hard-line policies that many fear will only worsen mass incarceration in the state.

Wisconsin currently holds the highest incarceration rate for African American adults in the country, with one out of every 36 residing in state prison. Following the Christmas Parade tragedy in Waukesha last year, where a Milwaukee man was arrested for driving a van through the parade, killing and wounding dozens of people, calls have boomed from the GOP to create a stricter cash bail system.

A constitutional amendment has been crafted by Republican representatives; it will eventually go to voters in a referendum. However, as many EXPO activists pointed out while meeting with legislators, many incarcerated or formerly incarcerated people will be left out of that vote due to their records. The constitutional amendment was one of the top issues at hand for Tuesday’s action.

Tuesday’s Empathy and Action Day

EXPO organizers and activists speak with staff in the office of Rep. Tony Kurtz (R-Wonewoc). (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

Rep. Jodi Emerson (D- Eau Claire) spoke to the EXPO activists as they prepared to carry out the meetings for Empathy and Action Day. “For me it starts with voting,” said Emerson.

“Voting is our most fundamental right in this country. And to think of people who are out of the system, out of prison for years and years and years, not being able to vote for who’s setting curriculum for [their] kid’s school. Not being able to vote on the city council people, and whether their sidewalk gets redone or not. So we’ve really tried to shift this narrative about making sure that people who are out and on papers have the right to vote. There’s some states that don’t ever take your voting rights away. I think that that’s an intriguing thing that we need to start talking about in this state.”

Ramiah Whiteside, a prison outreach coordinator for EXPO who spent decades in various levels of Wisconsin’s penal system, will be unable to vote until 2042. “However, for going on three years now, I’ve paid taxes,” Whiteside told participants in Tuesday’s Empathy and Action Day. “And I’ll continue to pay taxes because that’s what you do when you want to invest in our Republic. However, who represents me?”

When an issue arises in the community, “I can’t just go, ‘Hey, I’m going to vote this person in or vote that person out,’ because I don’t have the civil right to vote back,” Whiteside added. Because of that, he said, he also works with groups that mobilize incarcerated people who can’t vote to encourage those they know who can vote to participate in democracy.

Sylvester Jackson, a formerly incarcerated organizer with EXPO, coached the group on Empathy and Action Day on how to reach out to legislators and encourage them to empathize with others.

“The goal is to go to the different elected officials’ offices to inform them of the different issues,” said Jackson. One thing pressing on his own mind is the potential closure of the Felmers O. Chaney Correctional Center in Milwaukee. The Department of Corrections facility is one of the only ones in Milwaukee committed to adult re-entry for men coming out of incarceration. Jackson and others are concerned that it will be gutted to make way for a new Type 1 juvenile facility as the Lincoln Hills prison closes.

The push to pass a constitutional amendment and make cash bail stricter is a form of collective punishment, Jackson and other EXPO activists believe. “Every time in this country, especially in this state, where a person of an ethnic, African American culture, commits a crime, the impact of it goes far beyond where it needs to be if it’s in a white community,” Jackson said.

EXPO organizers and activists speak with staff in the office of Rep. Tony Kurtz (R-Wonewoc) for Empathy and Action Day (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

The reaction from the Waukesha parade shouldn’t be used to push policies that will affect entire populations, he added. While legislators have pushed for stricter policies, regularly hammering issues in Milwaukee like homicide and criminal justice reform, racist activities are growing more common in Waukesha. Recently, a group of masked individuals erected a sign in view of Waukesha’s city hall reading “stop Black terror.” Local authorities stated that there’s been an uptick in such activity since the Parade tragedy.

Jackson links the issues of voting rights to the passage of seemingly targeted policies. “All of this is cloaked in the racism of this country,” he said. “To either suppress, or oppress, or stop the growth of people who are not considered white Caucasians.”

The point of the Empathy and Action Day is “to get those who we elect in office more involved in what the people want and need in our communities,” Jackson said. “Which is the reason why they’re elected.”