Sylvester Jackson, the lead organizer of EXPO, says the Chaney Center provides stability to men being released from prison. (Photo by Ana Martinez-Ortiz)

Sylvester Jackson was incarcerated for 10 years. When he was released in 2017, he had no money to his name and was told to move on with his life.

“I was released with nothing,” Jackson said. “No money, no resources, no housing, no anything by the Department of Corrections and was told to succeed.”

After being released, individuals are expected to return to the community and be upstanding members of society. But without money, that’s not an easy task. It takes money to make rent or pay bills, Jackson said.

However, individuals at the Felmers O. Chaney Correctional Center, 2825 N. 30th St., may have an easier time. The center is one of 14 institutions that make up the Wisconsin Correctional Center System; it offers a work release program, which connects inmates with employment opportunities with local employers.

Recently, there has been talk of closing the center and using the space as a Type 1 juvenile correction facility – this is in response to the impending closure of the Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake youth prisons.

Many groups including Milwaukee Inner-City Congregations Allied for Hope or MICAH, All of Us or None, Project Return and Ex Incarcerated People Organizing or EXPO and more have been protesting the closure of the Chaney Center. The groups have been hosting weekly demonstrations at the center.

The Chaney Center helps people become financially stable, Jackson said, individuals who are soon to be released can generate money through jobs.

Jackson is the lead organizer of EXPO, which works with individuals who were recently incarcerated and helps them assimilate back into society.

Elected officials are talking about closing the Chaney Center, 2825 N. 30th St., and turning it into a youth prison. (Photo by Ana Martinez-Ortiz)

According to the State of Wisconsin Department of Corrections, nearly 9,000 inmates were released in 2020. Of those, about 1,000 spent five or more years in prison, while the majority spent less than a year.

When the men from the Chaney Center are reintegrated into the community, they have stability which helps them stay out here, Jackson said.

Jackson believes that the Department of Corrections is taking the cheap way out. There’s other land that could be used to build a youth prison facility, he said.

“That shouldn’t be the end game to it,” he said. “Being inconvenienced is no excuse to shut down hundreds of men’s lives and endanger our community by taking stability from it. A little inconvenience doesn’t justify that.”

The aforementioned groups are looking at potential places for a youth prison including the former Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources located at 2300 N. King Dr.

Local groups have been hosting weekly demonstrations at the Chaney Center in protest of it closing. (Photo by Ana Martinez-Ortiz)

Rev. Joseph Ellwanger, who helped found Project Return, spoke during the rally. He said that the group would prefer to see youth group homes instead of a youth prison.

“We have time to work on that too, but above everything else we want to save the Chaney Center,” he said.

Jackson remains hopeful that the group’s efforts will succeed. Every week he sees more faces at the rallies, and more people are spreading the word.

“I’m very hopeful, because without hope we’re already doomed,” he said. “I’m hopeful because you have the community input, which makes a difference.”

The weekly demonstrations are set to continue for several more weeks. The groups plan to meet at the Chaney Center, 2825 N. 30th St., at noon on Tuesday, Dec. 7.