1 in 8 Black Men Are Currently in Prison in Wisconsin


The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee last week released a deeply concerning study about incarceration in the state. Among the most jarring of findings was that nearly one of every eight black men of working age is currently in prison in Wisconsin. The state also leads all other states in the number of incarcerated indigenous men at 7.6%, with South Dakota following with 7.3%. 

The number of Wisconsinites in prison has nearly tripled since 1990 primarily due to “increased government funding for drug enforcement (rather than treatment) and prison construction, three-strike rules, mandatory minimum sentence laws, truth-in-sentencing replacing judicial discretion in setting punishments, concentrated policing in minority communities, and state incarceration for minor probation and supervision violations,” according to the study. The demographic most significantly affected by these changes is African-American men, whose incarceration rates have skyrocketed to nearly twice the national average. Conversely, the national average for incarcerated white men is nearly identical to the state average in Wisconsin. Indeed, according to the study, in Milwaukee County alone, over half of black men in their 30s have spent some time in prison.

Wisconsin holds a steady lead in the percentage of incarcerated black men in the state, beating Oklahoma, the next state, by approximately three percentage points.This gap, NPR notes, is “bigger than the total distance between the second- and 10th-place states.” 

The study notes that there is no “quick fix” to solving this alarming trend, but there are several things that can be done to help recently released inmates assimilate to life outside of prison and help gain employment, such as expanded workplace training and reintroduction programs.  

The Obama administration recently announced plans to pivot the “War on Drugs” in a way that would take focus away from criminalization and towards treatment. This move can almost guarantee that the prison population will dramatically decline nationwide, particularly among people of color. In outlining this new chapter in drug policy, Director of the White House Office on National Drug Control Policy Gil Kerlikowske wrote, “While law enforcement will always play a vital role in protecting our communities from drug-related crime and violence, we simply cannot incarcerate our way out of the drug problem. Put simply, an enforcement-centric “war on drugs” approach to drug policy is counterproductive, inefficient, and costly.”