By Sarah Maslin
More than 100 faith leaders and prison reform advocates rallied Wednesday outside the Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility to urge the state to fix a system they say lands nearly 4,000 parolees in prison each year because of "technical violations," costing taxpayers $140 million.
The rally was organized by the statewide faith coalition WISDOM as part of its 11x15 Campaign for Justice, which aims to reduce the Wisconsin prison population to 11,000 inmates by 2015. More than 22,000 people are now behind bars in the state.
The number of people incarcerated has tripled since 1990, and the amount spent on corrections rose 620% through 2012 -- not accounting for inflation -- according to state figures.
Wisconsin is the nation's leader in black male incarceration. One in eight African-American working-age men are in state prisons and local jails, according to a 2013 report by researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
One contributing factor, according to faith leaders at the rally, is the high rate of parole revocation.
Prisoners who have been released can be sent back to prison for committing a new crime or for violating one of the rules of their supervision, which include traveling outside the state, associating with felons and substance abuse, among other things.
Most of the 4,000 people sent back to prison have not committed new crimes, according to Jerry Hancock, a former Department of Justice administrator and the director of the Prison Ministry Project for the United Church of Christ.
"People are being revoked for what most of us take for granted, like using a cellphone or a computer," he said Wednesday.
The faith leaders also decried the Department of Corrections' electronic GPS monitoring system, saying malfunctions of ankle bracelets had sent parolees back to jail unjustly, causing them to lose income and opportunities.
After a series of speeches, the protesters marched to the State Office Building on N. 6th St., where they delivered a letter to Gov. Scott Walker's office.
Walker spokeswoman Laurel Patrick referred questions to DOC spokeswoman Joy Staab, who said in an email: "The Department of Corrections is responsible for the safe and humane custody of 22,000 inmates in prisons and correctional centers and the supervision of 68,000 adult offenders on court-ordered probation, parole or extended supervision in the community. One of our primary goals is to keep Wisconsin citizens safe.
"An offender's supervision may be revoked if the offender violates a rule or condition of supervision. An administrative law judge makes the final revocation decision at a revocation hearing. Public safety is the primary consideration in any revocation decision."
Staab also said about 40% of offenders imprisoned for revocations in 2013 were classified as violent offenders, although the reasons for the revocations weren't necessarily violent.
WISDOM contends those classifications were made at the time of the crime, which may have occurred decades earlier.
Charlotte Mertins spoke on behalf of her fiancé, Hector Cubero, who was released in 2008, after more than 27 years behind bars.
In 2012, Cubero, an amateur artist, gave a tattoo to a young man who claimed he was 18 years old but wasn't, according to Mertins.
The young man's mother contacted Cubero's parole agent, and within days Cubero was locked up again. Mertins and her adult children have not been allowed to visit Cubero in prison since, she said.
"Our lives have been at a standstill for the past two years," Mertins said.
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