Over a cold and windy weekend, I recently stopped by Calvary Baptist Church on the near north side; not for worship, but another kind of enlightenment.
Calvary’s outreach team was hosting a screening of MILWAUKEE 53206, a documentary about the most incarcerated zip code in the nation. According to the film, 62% of the men – the vast majority, African American – from the 53206 zip code have spent time in prison.
This is something that occurs here, three miles from my own home, in the heart of our city.
Speaking of heart, that’s one theme I wasn’t expecting to find in this film. But for me, it would be difficult to hear Beverly Walker’s story and not feel that tug. She and her husband Baron are soulmates, separated by distance (in the film, he is at Fox Lake Correctional Institution) and time (21 years served, so far).
Beverly has kept her family, including 5 children and several grandchildren, together for two decades. She works full-time, advocates on behalf of Baron and other inmates, and cares for an ailing mother. Even as Beverly exclaims that she is too tired to keep doing it all on her own, she remains in love with and committed to her husband.
I expected a little more grit and a little less love story from this film, but to be honest, it all struck the same social justice nerve.
We learn that Baron is caught between changes in Wisconsin’s parole laws; stuck on the wrong side of legislation called Truth in Sentencing, which has made early release less likely. Baron’s crimes – two counts of party-to armed robbery – did not result in injuries or death. Under old laws, he would have been released on parole a long time ago.
According to the MILWAUKEE 53206 website, Beverly and Baron’s story is meant to “reflect a way of life of millions of households across the nation living during this tragic and uniquely American era of mass incarceration.” I’d say the documentary is effective at doing exactly that.There are certain scenes that just stick with me, like the images of Baron’s family on a road trip to visit him, singing on the way there; silent on the way back.
There’s the young white man who shared his story of arrest, some jail time, but ultimately, a lesser sentence than his black counterparts.
And then there are the images of kids in the 53206 zip code, their outdoor play areas littered with trash. All throughout the film, the skies feel gray, which is probably more a forecast for the plight of families than the actual weather.
The film also follows two other men from 53206. After having his own experiences with the justice system, Dennis Walton is co-director of Milwaukee’s Fatherhood Initiative where he advocates for incarcerated men. And Dan Wilson is an example of how Walton’s outreach can make a difference. After 15 years in and out of the criminal justice system, Wilson is a graduate of the fatherhood initiative and committed to self-reform.
The documentary’s promotional materials hint that poverty, along with unemployment and lack of opportunities, plays a role in mass incarceration, especially of young black men. However, Wilson came from a middle-class family, suggesting that economics alone don’t land men to prison – and certainly isn’t what leaves them there.
If you’ve seen the documentary, please comment below. And if you haven’t yet seen it, keep an eye out for a screening we hope to host here at SaintA.
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