Editor’s note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that felons cannot vote in Wisconsin. Their voting rights are restored once they are no longer under the supervision of the Department of Corrections,. This is typically called being “off paper.”
The needs of people released from incarceration are far ranging yet not straightforward, which is why Milwaukee County Supervisor Sequanna Taylor created the “Re-entry Unblemished” event series.
These events help guide those who are in the process of building their lives after incarceration.
They take place every other month and are hosted by different venues throughout the city and typically include a panel of speakers and several service providers.
For example, a March 22 event at the Northcott Neighborhood House on the North Side featured several panelists, including Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Milton Childs and Edward Hennings, who was incarcerated for roughly 20 years and now owns multiple successful businesses.
The crowd of 130 people eagerly received both Childs and Hennings.
Childs spent much of his time speaking about the expungement and pardon processes.
For a pardon, one’s legal rights are restored, but “for expungement,” said Childs, “your record is sealed. No one has access to it. But the thing is . . . expungement does not get rid of a felony. Your felony is still a felony.”
This difference is crucial because having a felony conviction presents persistent obstacles to accessing resources, Childs said.
In Wisconsin, those with felony convictions cannot vote while they are under supervision of the Department of Corrections. They are typically hampered by the types of employment they can get and governmental benefits programs they can access, among other restrictions.
Getting crucial information to residents
Taylor said many individuals do not have up-to-date information regarding their eligibility for either expungement or pardon.
For this reason, among others, Taylor puts a high premium on the face-to-face interaction attendees can get at these events, always making sure to make time for one-on-one conversations.
Hennings spoke about factors he believes need to be addressed.
“I grew up in (ZIP code) 53206,” he said. “I know poverty like it’s my best friend. I know the stresses of poverty. I know the stresses of a single mom trying to take care of her kids. And she got to go to work every day. … That’s what poverty does.
“It’s going to take the parents – even the grandparents – out of the household,” he said. “We got to have a little empathy, because young brothers are born into a situation that they had nothing to do with.
“And then we say you got to climb out of this, and you got to make it happen,” he added. “How hard is that to do? Extremely difficult. So, we got to do our part to make it not so difficult for these children.”
After the event, Hennings shared his personal experiences.
“My body physically went to prison in 1996, but I think I got incarcerated in 1991 … . Once I got to prison, I realized: ‘Man, I’ve been in prison.’ You know, just on how I see myself, how I see the world, how I see the possibilities and opportunities. They had gotten so small, it went down to zero. … So, by then, I was in prison.”
After the panelists speak, service providers introduce themselves and explain the services or resources they provide.
At the March event, organizations providing resources included the Milwaukee Community Service Corps and FREE, an advocacy group that serves girls and women in contact with the criminal justice system.
In addition, governmental entities such as the Wisconsin Department of Workplace Development, Milwaukee County Department of Human Resources and the City of Milwaukee Health Department were represented.
Taylor said these events are not just for people who have been, or know someone who has been, incarcerated.
“I want to have other people who may not understand or believe that these individuals may deserve a second chance to kind of get to know them as a human, not just as their past,” she said.
For more information
To get information on the event series, email Sequanna.Taylor@milwaukeecountywi.gov or call 414-278-4201.