Justice Storytelling Project Told Milwaukee Prison is ‘Beyond Reform’

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Milwaukee Detention Facility

Rob Schreiber (right) speaks about his experience with MSDF as Sharyl McFarland (middle) and William Harrell (left) look on. Photo by Jabril Faraj/MNNS

A nationwide justice “storytelling” project has set up shop in Milwaukee this month, where it heard individuals formerly incarcerated at the Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility (MSDF), describe conditions ranging from poor ventilation and overcrowding to inadequate medical care, according to a report this week from Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service.

“Incarcerating people at MSDF defies our notions of freedom and justice,” said Mark Rice, who spent six months at the facility after being arrested for disorderly conduct and is now assistant state director of Ex-Prisoners Organizing (EXPO), a group lobbying for closure of the downtown Milwaukee high-rise detention center.

“MSDF is beyond reform.”

The storytelling event was facilitated by Mass Story Lab — a Pennsylvania group working in cities around the country to present first-hand stories of justice-involved individuals and their families to dispel what it calls “misinformation about the experience of incarceration.”

Milwaukee is the ninth city to host the program, which makes clear that one of its central aims is to spotlight jails and detention facilities plagued by substandard conditions. The MSDF is among a list of targets that includes Rikers Island in New York, the country’s largest jail.

The lab says it aims to put on similar events in at least 20 cities by the end of 2018.

The Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility (MSDF), located in downtown Milwaukee, allows few amenities for those incarcerated there—even books are frowned on—said former inmate Rob Schreiber.

“(When) I came out…nobody knew who I was because I had lost 60 pounds in six weeks,” he said, charging “there is no rehabilitation in the Department of Corrections in the State of Wisconsin—everything is based on fear.”

Tom Moore, head of the Close MSDF Research Committee, which is exploring alternatives to detention, said treatment programs don’t have to confine people, but can be based in the community.

Other participants suggested that resources used to operate the facility be reinvested to provide better mental health and substance abuse treatment, access to high-quality education and to help secure living-wage employment.

The MSDF, described on its website as a medium-security facility built to house 1,000 inmates, has reportedly experienced several inmate deaths since it opened in 2001.

William Harrell, a minister who was detained there in the early 2000s, claimed there were at least 17 deaths—most of them due to heat exhaustion at the facility, where temperatures have soared as high as 100 degrees.

This is an edited and abridged version of a report by Jabril Faraj of the Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, a project of the Diederich College of Communication at Marquette University. The full version is available here. The Crime Report is pleased to post this as part of its partnership with the Institute for Nonprofit News (INN).

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