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People on the Street | Ackkaamayah Yahoudah (Part 1)

Ackkaamayah Yahoudah, who was raised in the inner city by a single mother, has set out to correct the record.

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Formerly incarcerated must drive criminal justice reform, activists say

A pair of dry, crinkled underwear hang on the wall beside two white towels in a room located in one of 13 communal detention areas at the Milwaukee County Jail. A Vanity Fair magazine, Gideon’s New Testament and a pair of reading glasses occupy the surface at the foot of a neatly-made bed. On the bed, propped up against the pillow, are three photos, presumably of family, and a store-bought card, whose cover reads: “Someday your pain will become the source of your strength. Face it. Brave it. You will make it.”

Recently, Acting Sheriff Richard Schmidt hosted a tour of the County Jail, which saw seven deaths in 2016 and 2017 under former Sheriff David Clarke. Schmidt touted the changes he has made at the jail, particularly in leadership, and said that all but two recommendations from a recent National Institute of Corrections report on the jail have already been implemented.

However, community members are saying more needs to be done to engage residents, particularly formerly incarcerated people, in reforming the criminal justice system.

“We’ve experienced the system of oppression — we’ve been through it, and that perspective is needed,” said Mark Rice, Milwaukee campaign coordinator for Just Leadership USA and a member of Ex-Prisoners Organizing (EXPO). “The people close to the problem are close to the solution.”

Rice, who also sits on the Milwaukee Community Justice Council’s re-entry committee, added that he would like to see regular meetings to solicit input from “individuals from the communities that have been most directly impacted” by poverty and incarceration. He criticized the council for not involving more of those people.

Wisconsin incarcerates black men at a rate almost two times the national average. These numbers are driven by Milwaukee, whose 53206 ZIP code — which is 95 percent black — has the highest incarceration rate in the country.

“I expect all those voices to be at the table,” said Walter Lanier, a pastor and the community representative on the Community Justice Council’s executive committee, which includes city, county, state and federal officials. He said the council has recently begun to research national best practices for engaging community members and that he would like to see specific processes set up to allow residents to drive the agenda. He added that more representation on the council could be a part of that. “My vision is for us to be a national leader.”

Community Justice Council Executive Director Mandy Potapenko did not respond to emailed questions.

“People are going to … do what they need to survive, whether there’s help from government agencies or not.”

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This sign in the County Jail’s booking room shows the consequences an inmate may face if they get in a fight. (Photo by Jabril Faraj)

At a recent meeting, the Coalition for a People’s Sheriff, a diverse group of community organizations that lobbied for Clarke’s removal, delivered a vision to Schmidt that outlines what it would like to see from the sheriff’s office. The vision calls for an end to mass incarceration and “state violence” against communities of color, and a commitment to treating incarcerated individuals — including those who do not conform to a particular gender — with dignity. Specifically, it calls on the Sheriff’s Office to set aside 5 percent of its budget to be “reinvested​ into communities,” the “full legalization of cannabis” ​and “reparations for communities impacted​ by past racist drug policies.”

Wisconsin Working Families Party Political Director Rebecca Lynch said the meeting, the coalition’s second with Schmidt since he took over in September, was “night and day, compared to the last sheriff.” And Black Leaders Organizing for Change (BLOC) Executive Director Angela Lang, also a co-chair of the coalition, said she was “encouraged.”

“Every inmate must be treated with respect, with proper humanity, with proper nutrition and nourishment, and receive proper medical and mental health care,” said Schmidt during a news conference before the jail tour.

At any given moment, the county facility houses 900 inmates, 30 percent of whom, according to Schmidt, have “serious mental health conditions.” In 2017, there were 2,489 medical emergencies in the jail, and 726 inmates were transported to a hospital to receive further care. During the tour, a medical emergency occurred where an inmate became unresponsive, but ultimately survived, according to Schmidt. 

He said, about 34,000 people pass through the County Jail every year while awaiting trial or arraignment.

“For him to say: ‘Look, I’m not in the business of trying to tear up families,’ and ‘The Latino community should not have to live in fear’ and him saying that he wants to prioritize mental health, they’re all really encouraging conversations … but … our work does not stop,” Lang said. The coalition will continue to apply public pressure to Schmidt and other officials, including County Executive Chris Abele, she added.

“We’re not looking for any temporary plans for permanent issues,” said Lang.

Rice, Lang and Lynch said one immediate step that could help to lower unnecessary incarceration is raising wages.

“People are going to … do what they need to survive, whether there’s help from government agencies or not,” said Rice.

He would also like to see more investment in mental health clinics, public education and “community-based treatment for people struggling with addiction and mental health issues.”

“There’s a long list of things … we could be investing in instead of needlessly incarcerating folks,” he added.

Abele said he supports “anything that will reduce the amount of incarceration we have.”

According to Abele, “The issue isn’t arguing with ourselves about who gets a limited pie— the important thing is growing the pie.”⬩

Update (April 24, 2018): A spokesperson for the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office attempted to censor the details of this story’s opening paragraph, citing privacy concerns. We do not believe those concerns to be credible, as we took care not to include any facts in the cell’s description that would identify the individual who lives there.

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419 West Vliet Street

As I walked along a quiet stretch of Vliet Street on a recent afternoon, this building caught my eye. I’m not exactly sure why, but it did. I stopped and spent some time, and this is what I saw.

Blue paint chips from a base of aged brick
revealing the sandstone layers
underneath;
A bird twitters a lonely plea from the tree
in front, still without its leaves.
Windows broken, bandaged with wire;
a sign on the door:
NO TRESPASSING
VIOLATORS WILL BE PROSECUTED.
Shards of glass and drips of old
black paint, slowly eroded
from the fire escape above,
a weather-eaten piece of wood
resting on its lower level,
moss creeping up the front door.
I wonder:
will it ever be used again?

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People on the Street | Charles Revello (Part 3)

A stint as a Marine Corps sniper left Charles Revello craving excitement and adrenaline. He found that rush with a biker gang, the Hells Angels, but lost his family as a result. Charles, who has been homeless for about two years, recently landed a job.

Watch: Part 1 of Charles’ story.

Watch: Part 2 of Charles’ story.

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“You learn to just keep moving”

Though it’s well over a month until the winter solstice, the frosty air and gray skies suggest otherwise. Denzel Jacobs walks down East Capitol Drive dressed appropriately for the Wisconsin weather, layering a button-up coat over a brown jacket zipped to the top. His hands stay sheltered in his pockets as he speaks.

He grew up on 3rd & Keefe.

“It was rough but neighborhood camaraderie kept everything straight,” Jacobs says. “It was more like a family than anything else.”

Denzel and his three sisters (one of whom is his twin) were raised primarily by his mother, uncle and grandma. Even though his dad didn’t live with them, he was always in their life.

“Up until he passed away, we had a relationship of sorts,” he says.

In August his father was stabbed to death just three blocks away from where he lived.

“You lose one parent and then you kind of become numb to things,” he explains. “My mom had cancer and that was rough enough, but them being a year apart …”

His gaze wanders off toward the overcast sky as he pauses.

“It’s definitely rough but you learn to keep moving.”

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In April of 2015, Jacobs’ mother told him and the rest of the family that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer.

“It was actually April Fool’s Day when I found out.”

So began the battle against the tumor. Denzel and his sisters would accompany their mother to weekly chemotherapy treatments. At one point, the doctors were able to shrink the tumor down and remove it.

“Everything seemed to be going okay,” Jacobs recalls. “We were all pretty optimistic about the situation … Up until that last moment.”

After his mother started radiation treatment, the cancer became aggressive; it took over within the span of two months, spreading across her body.

He says that at some point during the battle, he realized it was selfish to want her to remain here and suffer like she was. Believing she was going to a better place when she passed, made coping a little easier.

“She was a woman of the Lord, so I put that in his hands,” Denzel says with a subtle smile.

The Jacobs family remains close-knit and continue the tradition of attending cancer walks together.

In the wake of his parents passing, Denzel says that he’s become more introspective.

“My goal is just to be happy,” he shares. “To be around and be something for somebody.”

Jacobs laughs. “People know me. You could give me socks, as long as they are socks with love.”⬩

Update (Nov. 19): This story initially stated the wrong year Denzel’s mother was diagnosed. We apologize for the error.

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“This is where the spirits leave”

The eighth annual Dia de los Muertos Milwaukee festival attracted hundreds with a 5K race, Vigil for Peace, parade, art and entertainment. The goal of the festival, founded by Celeste Contreras in 2010, is to bring Milwaukee communities together to celebrate and remember the passing of loved ones.

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“There is nothing like having peace”

Sunlight peeks through the scattered, slow-shifting clouds. The air is slightly chilled, indicating autumn’s swift arrival. Steve Hampton stands on the stoop outside of his front door wearing a crimson red and gray jogging suit and holding Joyce Meyer’s “Battlefield of the Mind.”

“This right here is a very powerful book,” Hampton says. “I read this about five times in Mississippi.” It was there that he served a 10-year prison sentence, where he was initially charged with life without the possibility of parole.

Steve was born in Chicago but his Mother moved him and his siblings with her to Milwaukee to escape their Father, who was abusive. Though Hampton was too young to recall the abuse, his older sister would tell him about it.

Steve, who grew up in Hillside, recalls his Father’s occasional presence.

“I mean he took care of me financially-wise,” He recalls. “But what I needed was some guidance.”

When Hampton was still young, he would go over to his cousin’s house and see them living and working the ins-and-outs of what he calls “the drug business.”

“I wanted in,” Steve says. “I wanted some of that action.”

“There was a distraction and the distraction was fast money.”

By age 9, he was roaming the streets. As he grew older, Hampton fell into a trend of getting kicked out of school. He began stealing and selling his older cousins’ marijuana. In 1997, Steve found himself locked in the trunk of a car for hours; he finally managed to escape after using a small crowbar to pry his way out.

Eventually, Hampton would face charges in Milwaukee, but he fled to Mississippi on bail and was caught.

“I just thought at one time I was the slickest thing down here on this Earth, not knowing that I was dull and dead spiritually,” he laments. “Making the decision to turn to God for help was the best decision that I ever made.”

Hampton adds, “The battle is within the mind.”

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After those 10 years, Steve was extradited from Mississippi to Milwaukee. His good conduct begot positive recommendations that followed him to his next court appearance.

“The judge and the DA spoke highly of me,” He beams. “They’ve given me a chance in society again … it was all God’s doing.”

At 47, Hampton now makes a conscious effort to surround himself with positive people. He plans to maintain his focus on positive things.

He recites Jeremiah 29:11 from memory. “‘[For I know] the plans I have for you. Plans to prosper you and not harm you. To give you hope in the future’”

“So if my Heavenly Father says this thing, this plan that he has for Jeremiah … he has the same plans for all of us down here.”

Steve had his first job interview last week and plans to receive his license in ministry within the month.⬩

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“I feel their hurt”

On the corner of 27th and Atkinson, Martha Freeman sits in her van outside Alpha & Omega Ministries, her white storefront church sandwiched between a barbershop and a beauty salon. She scopes out the neighborhood with her friend Anita.

“If you look down that street there, every now and then you are going to see some heads peep around that corner and then they will go back,” Freeman says. “They are waiting for me to leave so they can sell drugs.”

“What I usually do is walk over here and say ‘I just took your picture, I know what you’re doing’,” she says, waving her cell phone in the air.

Her tinted passenger side window is rolled down; everyone who walks by and catches a glimpse of the unmistakable Freeman wastes no time in coming to the car to speak. Freeman greets them all with a huge smile and genuine interest. She always wants to know how they and their families are doing.

One man comes to complain about his diabetes, and ends up leading the group in prayer. He thanks god for Ms. Freeman and the love she shows — to him and the rest of the community. On top of it all, she leaves free bread outside of her church for people almost every day.

Martha was born in Gainsville, Georgia, and moved with her father to Milwaukee when she was 4. They lived on 6th Street, in a basement apartment armed with large rat traps that would keep her up late into the night with their loud snaps.

These days, that “familiar sound” is gunshots, Freeman says.

“Back then you didn’t hear all that,” she reminisces. “If there was a murder or a street fight, everybody in town would buy up all the newspapers reading about it. Children were playing, we could play outside all day long. It was just different.”

At 10, her mother moved to Milwaukee from Georgia, and Freeman went to live with her.

Four years later, Freeman had her first son; within five more years she had four more children. She stayed in school, graduated from Custer High School and went on to take classes at UW-Milwaukee, studying secondary education.

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In the late ‘60s, Ms. Freeman became eligible for a program that provided down payment on a home for a select few who had five or more children. She moved in right around the corner on 26th Street.

“I thought I was rich,” Freeman laughs. “You know how you see dirt out here on the streets? Well not by my house! I used to sweep the street and hose it down.”

She cleaned homes in Whitefish Bay to provide for her family.

“I worked so hard scrubbing them floors on my hands and knees until I had scars all everywhere, but it provided a place for my kids to have friends to come over.”

Her home was a haven for neighborhood youth. Through working third shift at the Sheriff’s Office for 20 years, she made connections within the community.

“I feel their hurt,” Ms. Freeman winces. “I know what it’s like — I’ve experienced the hurt. I know what it’s like to not have money”

When she was a child she would get into fistfights standing up for other people. But, as Freeman reflects, her anger, as a youngster, came from wanting to be loved.

“A lot of times you don’t want to share those kind of needs … because people look at you crazy. They might even have the same kinds of feelings but, you know, can’t express it.

“I found out that it is better for me to be for real with myself and my feelings, even if it is anger. Be for real with it, so I can get rid of it,” she says.

Now, at 78, Freeman is still fighting, just a slightly different battle.

“I am still fighting for people, I am fighting for their souls and it’s important to me because I can see how my life changed.”

“There are many mothers out here that are crying because their kids are locked up, crying because they can’t get through to them.”

“My children no longer carry guns. They no longer sell drugs. They are no longer in that type of lifestyle. And that is a peace for me. I would like to see other mothers experience that.”⬩

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“Everyone’s good at something”

Kevin Nam created TaskFriend, an app that allows neighbors to connect with each other to “outsource tasks and … to earn money completing flexible jobs,” after his experience as a college student with a busy and unpredictable schedule that made it hard to find work. Nam sat down with Milwaukee Stories to talk about the app, which launches today, and how he hopes the platform will be a way to bring people together. This interview was edited for clarity and length. (Full disclosure: Kevin Nam is a contributing member of milwaukeestories.org)

Update (Jan. 29, 2018): In an email, Nam wrote: “Last October we launched our app in Milwaukee with Shepherd Express and Milwaukee Stories covering the launch. We were hoping to get a couple hundred to a thousand users to kickstart our marketplace. However, we had less than 100 people sign up and had no completed transactions in the following months. We decided to regroup and try again.”

TaskFriend was advised by lawyers that the co-op structure, in which the company would award equity to users, “wasn’t financially or legally viable for our startup.” Nam added, “We’re continuing to seek new ways to offer value to people who use our platform.”

What does TaskFriend allow me to do?

It really allows you to rely on members within your community, to help you get anything you need done. Because, at the end of the day, we’re not good at everything — we need help in our lives. This allows us to rely on people instead of businesses.

The cost-saving will be there for both people and, for people working, it’s going to really allow them to make more money than working for a business. And, it’s going to allow them to do it on their own terms, you know, on their own time, [for] what they believe is a fair price.

I believe that it could really add value to everyone’s lives, because people can start really relying on each other. We’ve become this society were, you know, we’re going our own ways; we’ve started not collaborating with people, working with people — we’ve started working by ourselves.

Why is this needed? Why can’t people just start working together?

It’s hard to find a means to come together. So, that’s what businesses do — it’s hard for me to find a person so the business does that but, if they’re doing that, they take a profit. This really allows you to interact with people, you know, work together on a collaboration, not with a business. So, it’s really getting rid of that middle man, and that’s what we’re really trying to do.

We have a five percent transaction fee but that’s not how we want to monetize — that’s how we’re starting. The five percent transaction fee barely covers our credit card transaction fee of three percent. We want to add value in other ways.

When I use the platform, how do I know I’m going to be safe?

At the minimum, we require phone verification. So, you know that that person is tied to the phone number. And, most people, they’re not going to commit a crime if they’re tied to something. At the end of the day, our philosophy is that most people are trying to earn their money, they’re not trying to screw other people over.

Once people are together, we can figure it out. People are smart, people are really hard-working, people are good.

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Who will this help the most?

I think this will help people who are trying to gain freedom in their lives, people who don’t have enough time in their lives that could really use a hand and people who could use extra income.

When you get a job, you need to be on a fixed schedule or you need to have a certain amount of time allotted every week. On some weeks, I had a little bit of time; other weeks, I had no time. This basically gives you the freedom to work when you want, for how much you think your value’s worth for that job.

What kind of effect do you hope to see?

I’m hoping that it will have two effects. One is [to] lower the price of services. The price of services right now is insanely high when your neighbors could probably do it for a lot less. Number two is: allow people to really work on their own terms, to choose when they work, which jobs they can do and how much they want to charge.

The marketplace becomes more efficient as more people come on it. For example, neighbors have to travel less to get to your house to do the job. We’re talking about two people coming to an agreement to do something at a certain price. Who are we to say you can’t do that? There’s enough money that the person paying can pay less and the person earning could earn more. We’re thinking there’s enough to go around.

Once people are together, we can figure it out. People are smart, people are really hard-working, people are good — we’re good at collaborating. That’s how society, itself, exists. And, in a way, we already do this, it’s just we go through an intermediary, we go through a business but, at the end of the day, the businesses send the person, right?

According to Nam, TaskFriend will provide $20,000 for neighbors to act as ambassadors. “There’s going to be potential to earn money on the platform as soon as we launch,” said Nam, adding that ambassador jobs will be posted by the company at locations around Milwaukee. The app’s most frequent users will have the opportunity to, eventually, earn shares in the company.

Download the app.

Update (Oct 18, 2017): All ambassador positions currently listed are concentrated in the Riverwest neighborhood and near UWM.

Milwaukee Stories is a nonprofit organization that brings you the real stories of regular people. This work is supported by small, individual monthly contributions from people just like you; we need your help.

People on the Street | Charles Revello (Part 2)

As a child, Charles Revello struggled to find a community, somewhere he could belong. Eventually, he found was he was looking for; despite some recent setbacks, Charles longs to return home.

Watch: Part 1 of Charles’ story.

Watch: Part 3 of Charles’ story.

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We need your help! Milwaukee Stories is a nonprofit organization that brings you the real stories of regular people. This work is supported by small, individual monthly contributions from people just like you.