Mark fights to change Wisconsin criminal justice system

My experience with the revocation process in Milwaukee reveals some of the problems with the current system. I have suffered from paranoid schizophrenia for the last 17 years. During this time period, I was convicted of several offenses that were associated with this disabling mental condition. One day during the summer of 2007, Milwaukee police officers arrested me for disorderly conduct. I went to court a few days after getting arrested. The judge, the public defender, and the prosecutor all agreed that my behavior did not fit with the definition of disorderly conduct. The judge dismissed the case, but I did not get to go home. My probation officer, who had no specialized training in mental health issues, moved forward with the revocation process. My former probation officer, a mental health specialist in Madison, disagreed with the decision of my probation officer in Milwaukee. He believed that an alternative to revocation treatment program would have been a better option. My probation officer forced me to stay in the Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility (MSDF) for nearly six months while I fought the revocation. Eventually, a Milwaukee administrative law judge revoked my probation.

After spending a few more weeks in a county jail, I went to court again. I faced a maximum of 12 years in prison, but the sentencing judge decided to let me go home. Imprisonment often exacerbates the problems of people who suffer from mental illness. Mentally ill individuals who violate the rules of their supervision can often be treated more effectively in communities. I witnessed the deterioration of numerous people living with mental illnesses during my time in the special needs unit of MSDF. One individual attempted to commit suicide, a few people severely mutilated themselves, and correctional officers put several other men under suicide watch after they became suicidal.  My case demonstrates the need for reform in a few important areas. All mentally ill people under the supervision of the Department of Corrections (DOC) should be assigned only to officers who have completed specialized training in how to work with this population. In addition, people on probation should not be incarcerated for long periods of time while awaiting decisions about minor rule violations.

The Milwaukee police officers arrested me a few days before I was going to start my second year of graduate school at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. During the 2006-2007 school year, I worked as a project assistant at the university and received a full tuition scholarship. I lost my job, my scholarship, and my apartment because of the revocation. I also lost my Supplemental Security Income, health insurance, and FoodShare benefits. I had to re-apply for all of these benefits after I got released.

I returned to UW-Milwaukee after my release. However, I never got my job and scholarship back. I earned a master’s degree from the university in 2009, but I had to take out several loans in order to complete the program.

I am now a PhD candidate at UW-Milwaukee, a statewide organizer with EXPO (EX-Prisoners Organizing), the chair of WISDOM’s Post-Release Issues Workgroup, and a board member of Project RETURN, a nonprofit organization in Milwaukee that helps men and women leaving prison make a positive and permanent return to our community.

My case demonstrates the potential of rehabilitation programs. The services that I received from numerous mental health professionals helped me to reach the level of functioning I am at today.

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