Soliloquy: Interview of a Convicted Felon
By Prince F. Rashada
With all the bureaucratic power moves being played in our state’s capitol, the Republican controlled Legislature seems to continue to enact laws to keep prisoners locked up and serving longer sentences. Their agenda to push ‘tough on crime’ campaigns are literally costing the taxpayers billions to maintain an overcrowded prison system filled with minorities and people of color, which has ignited the powderkeg of mass incarceration in Wisconsin. While most of the white dominated political circles seem to praise the gestapo-like system created by the former Walker administration, there is yet a muffled voice in the wilderness that’s rarely heard: the prisoners!
This interview is from a black prisoner who was wrongfully convict of a crime he didn’t commit, and have survived the inner turmoil and struggle of doing time in the Wisconsin Prison System for several decades. He considers himself an anti-mass incarceration advocate, political prisoner and freedom fighter. He is currently in Fox Lake Correctional Institution and have 2 years and 7 months left on a 7 years sentence.
- How old were you when you first entered the criminal justice system in Wisconsin?
Answer: I was 17 years old. I was charged with a few nonassaultive burglaries, and sentenced to 8 years after I was waived to adult court when I turned 18 in Kenosha County Jail. This was in 1987. I was never sent to Ethan Allen or Lincoln Hills, I was sent to Green Bay Correctional Institution, a maximum security prison. This was considered a gladiator school back then, where gangs made up 90% of the prison population. A lot of the prisoners were murderers, rapists, drug dealers, armed robbers, serial killers and white collar criminals, which was really a sort of criminal university. So for a nonviolent 18 year old to enter into an environment such is this, was really devastating and traumatic. I am now 51 years old.
- What impact do you think this environment had on you in the long run?
Answer: It transformed me from misguided youth into a hardened criminal, because I became a product of the prison subculture. This new education made me view society as a type of enemy that rejected me and kept me enslaved to a concrete jungle filled with savagery, racism and cruel and unusual punishment. This had a very negative overview on my self-image, worth and concept of reality. I became institutionalized, psychologically locked to a criminal mind-set and thought this was normal. Like any other fellow convict, I became a brick that helped to support the correctional infrastructure. I was never the same anymore, because doing years in a cage erases a part of your manhood and kills the human spirit. When this happens, freedom becomes something illusionary. So when you’re finally released, you find ways to come back to a penal system you’re familiar with. You no longer fear jails or prisons, because you’re now immune to the shock and aftermath of doing time.
- Please explain the nature of your wrongful conviction?
Answer: To me a wrongful conviction hinges on the fact that there was a miscarriage of justice, and that there was no sufficient evidence to substantiate guilt. If there is no physical evidence, no eye witnesses, no D.N.A but mere circumstantial evidence and conflicting testimony, then this is a he-said/she said-case that require additional technical support to assist a jury in arriving at the truth. In Wisconsin, hearsay and confidential informant testimony is relied upon in the court, and most of this information is coached by the state to prepare their witnesses to mimic the state’s theory of what happened in order to win. This is what happened in my case. I have sporadic prison terms in which I’ve spent now 20 years behind bars, even though these crimes were nonviolent and never involved any bodily injury, drugs or physical assault. The state has a tendency of over charging the defendants in an attempt to make them plead out, so believing that they’re in a no-win situation, they take deals. By taking these deals through indirect coercion and lack of legal knowledge they ended with a criminal record and a long road trip to the joint. So to me, mass incarceration are wrongful convictions.
- Have you tried to pursue this conviction in the higher courts?
Answer: Yes. I filed a postconviction in the Circuit Court, direct appeal in the Appellate Court and a petition for review in the Wisconsin Supreme Court in which they all affirmed the lower court’s decision. I lastly filed a Knight Petition, and still waiting on a decision. I have been fighting this case for over 4 years, and know through experience that we blacks get no fairness in the courts due to being too poor to hire attorneys to represent us. This is why I became a paralegal. So I could learn the legal process and the law, in order to navigate through the judicial jungle of a broken system. If I can’t get any justice, then I will appeal to the Governor to commute my sentence or appeal to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights to intervene.
- Under Truth-in-Sentence, do you think that the DOC mission is centered around rehabilitation?
Answer: No! Primary programs aren’t offered to inmates due to the pretext that they won’t retain this information unless they’re 1 year or less to be released, which is a blanket assumption meant to justify the horrific reality of TIS (Truth-in-Sentence). TIS requires the offender to do 100% of their sentences unless giving a sentence adjustment in the form of 75%/85% motions or ERP which is based on progress in conduct, rehabilitation, treatment, education or other correctional programming, since parole has been eliminated under the new law of Wisconsin by Act 283 and Act 109.
Therefore, prisoners are subtly denied rehabilitative programs during the early and middle stages of their confinement due to the notion that they have to serve their full sentences in the first place, so there are no longer any incentives for positively navigating through the system, such as parole, special action release, being transferred to a minimum security center to obtain work release or a risk reduction sentence. The unspoken mission of the DOC is containment or warehousing prisoners, since legally they have to serve their full sentences.
This is a judicial overkill. This tragedy is the worst form of punishment outside of death, and of course the prison administrative staff hands are tied to step in and help prisoners. So the PRC (Program Review Committee) becomes a co-conspirator with the courts to overly punish prisoners, even though they have the discretionary powers of placing prisoners in immediate programming, recommending special action releases, lateral transfers to minimum security facilities, compassionate releases, recommendations for sentence commutation by the Governor and recommending candidates for Act 89.
- Could you explain the relationship between feeling that the DOC is racist in nature or the fact that a predominately white administration controls a predominately black prison population?
Answer: Good question. I believe that the prison system is racist in nature, because the definition of racism has to do with social, political, economical and policies based on the belief that whites should maintain these systems. Either directly or indirectly, it is the foundation of white supremacy. Most white political leaders, public servants and DOC administrators as well as employees are often offended for being labeled a racist, despite the fact that they are part of a ruling class that have inherited the responsibility of overseeing minorities and people of color who come from poor neighborhoods and poverty. So racism is maintaining a system based on the values, beliefs, policies, attitudes and behaviors that promote the agenda of the said ruling class which happen to be white.
Therefore, if you have an overcrowded prison population filled with the majority of black bodies, then one can see how abuses can occur from a non-black staff on a massive scale. Our culture, language, interests, affiliations and nationalistic ambitions could be misunderstood by the non-black staff, and we could face and continue to face harassment, mistreatment, unfairness and severe punishment as compared to non-black inmates. Blacks are suppressed from quality prison jobs, and basically sent to work in the kitchen; while white become clerks, maintenance workers, tutors and obtain other technical positions. Blacks are transferred to minimum security facilities and secured minimums where they can’t get work release or study release, while white inmates typically are sent to minimums where they can get work and start creating financial security as they prepare for their releases. Blacks are denied black publications that the non-black staff doesn’t personally like, and this screening process is an excuse to overly censor things that non-black staff disapprove of. This also includes black religious and political organizations, which they consider dangerous and threats to security.
There appears to be a “denial objective” within the DOC to prevent blacks from exercising the same equal opportunities as compared to non-black inmates, and these are the same administrators throughout the Wisconsin Prison System that make recommendations that hinder, push back and keep at a snail pace the progress and unnoticed adjustments of black inmates. For we exist in a vacuum, and by design it is structured around us failing and becoming recyclable, as we increase the annual recidivism rate of returning back to prison. If the prisons really had a unique program that truly rehabilitated prisoners, then prisons would shut down overnight all across Wisconsin. So those who are advocating for being tough on crime and promoting longer sentences in an already overcrowded prison population filled with minorities and people of color, are the true definition of a greedy racist exploiting black lives. Maybe if their white sons and daughters were out committing crimes, robbing people in the suburbs or selling crack or heroin to other white youth, then they wouldn’t be to quick to lock them up and throw away the key. But they don’t see blacks in the same light, we are looked upon as thugs, savages, gangbangers, drug dealers, super predators and career criminals that are unredeemable. This is the natural mind-set of the DOC.
- Do you believe that the Governor is serious about criminal justice reform and couldn’t he just use his executive powers to reduce the prison population?
Answer: Yes I believe he is serious but also know that he is tied to a broken system that needs fixing, so he inherited this broken system which needs a lot of work. We can’t expect him to be an overnight miracle worker, but we do expect him to do things within his executive powers that doesn’t require Republican-legislative approval. For example, if the Republican-Legislators won’t veto or amend Act 109 or Act 283 (TIS) to reduce the prison population by 50%, then the Governor should use the Executive Clemency process to do a massive sentence commutation of nonviolent offenders and violent offenders who’ve served their time, completed programming and who have made positive institution adjustment. If he did this, the prison population would be reduced by 50% and would save the Wisconsin taxpayers millions of dollars annually. Any serious talk on criminal justice reform must deal with what he’s able to do now, by accessing all the necessary resources and executive powers he has at his immediate disposal. One stroke of his pen could reunite families, reduce the fiscal debt, increase the workforce, decrease the prison population and to project the state of Wisconsin as being a true advocate of eliminating mass incarceration and being a beacon light for criminal justice reform. This would create a precedent nationwide, and make the state of Wisconsin a model state for social change and hope.
The Governor has the executive powers to make changes without bipartisan support, especially if they don’t respect the Governor’s leadership and vision. I believe that the Governor is a good man and that he truly wants the best for the state of Wisconsin, but he also needs the support of the people. The people are the true power, not a particular party that controls the congress. If people want change, its up to them to make those changes by their unity. There is too much talk but very little action. There is too much rallying and city hall meetings but very little execution. The Governor has a duty to that office he was elected to, to represent ‘all’ citizens of the state of Wisconsin. We prisoners are citizens of the state of Wisconsin, and we are calling on the Governor to help us by undo the negative side-effects of the former Walker administration. He could easily do this by the simple act of commuting sentences, which bypasses the courts, legislation and the DOC. According to the Wisconsin Constitution, a governor may commute a sentence, which is to exchange one penalty or punishment for another of less severity. So he has to use that power and not work around that power.