Coalition of groups march to commentate a year of efforts to close MSDF. (Photo by Karen Stokes)

A coalition of local, state and national organizations and community members were out in numbers on a hot, sunny afternoon last Saturday outside of the Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility (MSDF) to observe the second anniversary of the campaign to close the facility.

Activists chanted “Close MSDF, close it, close it” and held signs saying, “Community Supervision Breaks Up Families” and “Shut Down MSDF” as passing traffic honked their horns in solidarity.

The march started at St. Benedict the Moor Parish to the MSDF and then proceeded over the bridge to the Aurora Sinai Medical Center.

Sylvester Jackson leading an emotional candlelight ceremony to honoring the 18 who died in custody at MSDF. (Photo by Karen Stokes)

The #CLOSEmsdf campaign began in June 2017 by people directly harmed by the practices of MSDF. The organizations leading the campaign are Ex-incarcerated People Organizing (EXPO), WISDOM, Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, JustLeadershipUSA and AOUON in coordination with more than 40 organizations with the goal of closing MSDF.

“This march is important to me. Eighteen people that we know of have died here, I know two of the people that died personally,” said Alan Schultz, community organizer for EXPO.

Schultz was at MSDF in 2003 and while incarcerated, a guard shut off the water in his cell for two days.

Keynote Speaker Phal Sok from Los Angeles
(Photo by Karen Stokes)

“We couldn’t flush the toilet, wash our hands or drink any water,” Schultz said. “The heat in there can feel about 115 degrees, people have died from the heat.”

#CLOSEmsdf refers to the MSDF as a torture chamber explaining that individuals confined in the facility are subjected to human rights violations, unsafe and unsanitary living conditions, overcrowding, abuse and lack of medical care.

On January 22, 2019, a parole and probation report from the Justice Lab at Columbia University found that Wisconsin incarcerates Black people at 11.5 times the rate of white people ranking Wisconsin’s imprisonment racial disparities fifth in the nation.

Opening remarks from AOUON Caliph Muab El. (Photo by Karen Stokes)

While according to the Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center, Wisconsin has reached a crisis point with the third highest rate of reincarceration in the nation based on violations of supervision.

Armed with data analysis from these reports, #CLOSEmsdf has established the following demands:

1.To stop incarcerating people for violations of supervision, transfer and end probation and parole holds.

2. Depopulate and close MSDF.

3. Repeal truth in sentencing, reduce probation and parole terms, cap the maximum length of those terms, drastically reduce the number of conditions of probation and parole supervision and eliminate all supervision fees

4. Reinvest the money wasted on MSDF back into communities for workforce development training and expanded mental health services.

#CLOSEmsdf is calling on Governor Evers to immediately direct these demands to the Wisconsin Department of Corrections.

Panel members Phal Sok, moderator Emilio De Torre, Sharlen Moore, Jerome Dillard and Devin Anderson. (Photo by Karen Stokes)

Prior to the march, the community met at St. Bens for food, fellowship and beginning with Caliph Muab El, from All of us or None (AOUON), a series of speakers powerfully articulated reasons why they believe MSDF should be shut down.

“Every morning I wake up and the first thing I think is, how do I stay free, it’s a struggle to stay free.

They’re not promoting justice or balance, what they’re promoting is a systemic structure that breeds hatred, slander and all the things that keep people back and prevent them from moving forward,” said Muab El. “We as a collective have to be just as vigilant to dismantle this structure.”

The keynote speaker was Phal Sok. As an infant child of Cambodia refugees, he became parentless at age sixteen. Through cracks in the school, justice and immigration systems, Phal ended up in the streets, eventually taken into the juvenile system and tried as an adult. Phal spent 16 years in custody. Today he works with the Youth Justice Coalition and Justice LA bringing change and truth to the human effects of mass communication.

“When survivors speak, systems fail,” said Phal. “We need to be at the table to make sure our voices are heard but you can be at the table and be on the menu.”

A panel featuring moderator, Emilio De Torre, ACLU of Wisconsin; Phal, Sharlen Moore, co-founder, Youth Justice Milwaukee; Jerome Dillard, State Director, EXPO; and Devin Anderson, Lead Organizer African American Roundtable answered questions and discussed the importance of working together to shut down the facility.

“Were not going to be invited to the table, sometimes we just gotta show up, sometimes we have to bring our own chair. We lose out when we’re not present, when we’re not on the inside advocating. We have to talk to people that have the decision-making power to transform the system,” said Moore.

“The call to action is one of the most critical pieces of any campaign,” said Phal. “We have to see it through to the end.”

The most powerful moment of the afternoon was a candlelight ceremony honoring the 18 who died while in custody at the MSDF.

“We can work to make sure no other family has to bury a loved one because they were in custody in the State of Wisconsin,” said Sylvester Jackson, EXPO organizer.