PRISON BEYOND BARS: From Heartache to Service
Painful experience with incarceration motivates activists to help others
By Adam McCoy
The phone call came 10 years ago, but LeVern Boyd remembers it like it was yesterday.
On an icy-December afternoon, her son Douglas Boyd called from the Stanley Correctional Institution near Eau Claire. It was difficult for Douglas to spit out the words, “Mamma, I’m in jail,” through the corded telephone and the many miles and metal bars that separated them. “You didn’t raise me like this,” Douglas said. Douglas wouldn’t make it to the end of his 25-year sentence for armed robbery.
And, On August 25, 2010 Boyd got the news from security personnel at Stanley. Her son was dead. Boyd didn’t receive the words like most would, filled with grief and regret, because she knew her son knew God. She believed Douglas, had gone to a better place—outside the confines of the Wisconsin correctional system.
He didn’t leave without leaving his mark. In the 10 years prior to his death, Douglas inspired his mother to start helping those with little hope.
That is, the thousands of Wisconsin families with a loved one in prison. “When a father goes to prison, so does his family,” Boyd said.
As Douglas became involved in a reentry program inside prison, he urged his mother to help families stay connected while separated by incarceration.
Douglas sacrificed his freedom by committing armed robbery in an attempt to feed an $800-a-day drug addiction. Boyd sacrificed her career to help people with loved ones in the same difficult position as herself—with a loved one in prison.
Boyd worked as an entrepreneur, making very good money and traveling the U.S organizing golf tournaments. Her business brought her to cities like Orlando and New Orleans, but her declining health and incarcerated son brought her back to Milwaukee.
She helped start a program called Voices to the Prisons, which transports families to nearly 20 different correctional facilities in the state.
“When I think about the people that can’t travel to see their families, I understand the hardship…when you look at where the different institutions are located around Wisconsin. You could have an institution that could be 20 minutes away and then you could have a institution that could be three and a half hours one way, away,” Lever said.
Rodney Evans sits in a pitch black room on a metal slab. The nothingness is the most daunting terror he will ever experience. They have stripped him of everything, including his underwear. The orange jumpsuit he is wearing and his thoughts are all he owns.
He has 72 hours to go.
There is a man across the hall, in a cell, but he is not alone. The man’s mind is sick. Evans hears him to talking to someone and screaming for his life.
Suddenly, Evans isn’t alone either. Something has filled his nothingness. His thoughts take over and his imagination fills the room with overwhelmingly petrifying horrors. Fear absolutely engulfs every inch of his body and every pore converts to Goosebumps. Evans’ voice cracks as he screams “Jesus.” Peace covers his body and everything changes.
Evans was sent to the “hole” in the Green Bay Correctional Institution after a he started a fight with another prisoner. He said he found something in that “hole” that changed his life. He found God.
Still, things were the same when he was released from prison. It was the same old Evans—drug addict and ladies man.
Evans’ parole officer set him up with a dorm room at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee when he was released in the early 1980s. He wasn’t attending school and lived with a heavy drug user in his dorm room and a male prostitute next door. He would meet the mother of his youngest child in there.
Crack houses filled with dirty arms marked by dirty needles were the regular for Evans.
“I once saw a man nearly beat another person to death for a drug-filled needle and pulled the needle out of his arm and put it in his own arm,” Evans said.
He said his life mirrored a Jerry Springer episode. He married the mother of his children and then spent the next seven years living with another woman. He said he lived a life of unconsciousness. He would frequently sell all of his family’s furniture for drugs and even sold all of his children’s presents on Christmas.
However, after more than two decades of drugs and alcohol addiction and multiple convictions and more than three decades of jail and prison time, Evans is now an assistant counselor at Project Return, a prisoner reentry advocacy group. He spends his nights trying to help offenders who were in his shoes.
Through mentoring at Project Return he finally turned his life around. He says he learned he was constantly running away from what his life was¬—husband, father, criminal and drug addict.
He also runs a church youth group and feeds the homeless on Sunday nights.
Evans and Boyd shared two things: the pain of their past and drive to help others touched by the Wisconsin prison system.
Thousands of Prisoners Will Return Home
On July 22, Milwaukee was slammed by some of the worst flooding it has seen in decades. On July 23, Evans experienced something worse than any flood—the loss of a son after an armed robbery gone bad.
Evans has tried to share this story to show others why they should not join Wisconsin’s prison population.
Evans and Douglas Boyd were a part of a Wisconsin prison population that swelled to more than 110,000 in 2008. Currently, one in 39 adults is under the control of the Wisconsin Correctional system, a jump from 1982 when one out of 139 adults were part of the system.
And, ninety-seven percent of inmates will one day complete their court-ordered sentence and return to society.
The task of reentry is difficult, with many prisoners making their way back into society without employment, housing, a driver’s license or any support system to make the transition easier.
Evans’ several attempts to reenter society weren’t easy, he said. His mother and wife enabled to him to live his crazy lifestyle and supported him throughout.
Wendell Hruska, executive director of Project Return in Milwaukee, has worked with reentering convicts for 10 years and said many times family ties are broken when they return. In some cases, a negative environment around the family could be the worst thing for a prisoner reentering society. Advocacy groups may become their only support system.
“If they don’t get the help they need, then the chance of them returning to prison skyrockets,” Hruska said.
Hruska and Boyd agree that their faith-based groups aren’t perfect, but have a real motivation behind what they do.
Limited Help for Prisoner Re-entry
Out of 43 projects mapped in Milwaukee County by a recent study found, 22 reported receiving funds. Seventeen of those received funds from the Department of Corrections.
The study was done on behalf of the Department of Corrections by the Center for Self-Sufficiency, a non-profit organization in Milwaukee that works with schools, government agencies, community organizations, faith-based groups and other non-profits on programs that strengthen local families.
According to the DOC, it spends approximately $46 million on DOC reentry services inside and outside of correctional institutions. Its services include a wide range of programs including substance abuse treatment, a pre-release curriculum and halfway homes. However, the $46 million is less than one percent of the DOC’s $2.5 billon current two-year budget. However, the study noted the DOC has donated almost 10 million to non-DOC groups in Milwaukee County.
In contrast, The James Cook foundation, which runs the Voices to the Prisons program and the men’s program Avenues for Recovery, operates on a $130,000-$150,000 yearly budget and has never received any DOC funds or any other grants. Boyd said that was partially because the process to apply for funding is so difficult. Voices to the Prisons focuses on reuniting families and mostly relies on donations.
Project Return operates on a $433,000 budget and has received City of Milwaukee Community Development grants and private grants.
Earl Fischer, Department of Corrections director of research, noted that the DOC has been doing a lot for offender’s reentry for more than a decade and has recently started a reentry initiative to revamp its program. As of 2004, the recidivism rate was at nearly 40 percent.
Boyd says she was commissioned by God to reunite families that have been torn apart by crime. It is tough, but she says there is nothing like seeing the look at the face of the family when they jump back into her van or bus with a big smile.
“My job out here is to get children to see their parents, grandparents to see their grandchildren and parents to see their children,” Boyd said. “Nothing can give you the joy that you receive when you see a family member come out with a smile on his or her face.”
She typically transports four spouses and children at a time to the various Wisconsin prisons but, a week before Christmas, will rent a charter bus and convoy more than 30 family members to Green Bay Correctional Institution. The visits may serve as an early Christmas present for some father-less children.
This Christmas, Evans will not sell his children’s presents for drug money. He will likely spend his holiday celebrating with his daughter who recently graduated from Marquette University. He will help decorate his church with his youth group. And, chances are that next year, he will change somebody’s attitude as he shares his story.