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Church coalition extends calls for prison reform

  • Article by: DINESH RAMDE
  • Associated Press
  • August 20, 2014 - 5:35 PM

MILWAUKEE — A coalition of church congregations demanding reforms within the Wisconsin Department of Corrections launched the second phase of its campaign Wednesday, calling on state officials to provide more services and options for offenders on parole.

WISDOM, an umbrella organization, began its "Reform Now" campaign last month in Madison. Its demands at the time included letting more prisoners out on parole and ending solitary confinement. The group expanded its focus Wednesday to include revocation, the process through which offenders who have been released on extended supervision are re-imprisoned for violating the terms of their release.

Coalition members held a news conference outside the Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility, where they argued that revocation makes it harder for offenders to put their lives back together, leading to a dysfunctional community and angry citizens.

WISDOM vice president Willie Brisco said he didn't want the anger to boil over in Wisconsin and lead to the sort of civil unrest that erupted in a St. Louis-area suburb in recent weeks after a white police officer shot and killed an unarmed black teen.

"We will not become a Ferguson, Missouri, where we let all of these things go about unanswered until they blow up in our faces," Brisco said. "This is a proactive method we are using to address these situations."

WISDOM speakers said offenders out on release should face revocation only if they break a new law.

Currently, an offender can be revoked for missing a scheduled parole meeting, being more than 15 minutes past curfew or crossing county lines without permission. The speakers acknowledged that those who break rules should be punished, but they said the level of discipline should match the severity of the offense.

The Rev. Joseph Jackson of the Friendship Baptist Church held Minnesota up as an example. Offenders there who violate minor rules of supervision may be given the chance to participate in a sanctions conference, in which the agent, offender and others discuss the violation and determine an appropriate course of action.

Wisconsin Department of Corrections spokeswoman Joy Staab said about 40 percent of revoked offenders were classified as violent offenders last year.

"An administrative law judge makes the final revocation decision at a revocation hearing," she said in an email. "Public safety is the primary consideration in any revocation decision."

At the WISDOM news conference, Charlotte Mertins talked about how the system thwarted the rehabilitation of her fiancé, Hector Cubero.

He was part of a group that robbed and killed a person in 1981. He served more than 27 years before being paroled in 2008, but the budding tattoo artist had to go back to prison two years ago for tattooing a minor who falsely claimed he was 18, Mertins said.

"My family and I live day to day feeling helpless toward Hector's situation," she said.

WISDOM plans to hold a monthly news conference through October to draw attention to aging inmates, overcrowding and solitary confinement, which the group likens to torture.

© 2014 Star Tribune