Posted on October 15, 2019

Inside the “Most Incarcerated” Zip Code in the Country

Caleb Gayle, New Republic, October 15, 2019


The neighborhood’s rectangular outline sits like a brick just north of the Fiserv Forum, home of the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks in downtown Milwaukee, where the 2020 Democratic National Convention will be held next summer. In addition to its high incarceration rates, 53206, a heavily African American district, suffers from every manner of social ill, from socioeconomic stagnation to poor health. The Democratic primary field is teeming with proposals to address these ingrained injustices, and the party’s eventual candidate will also have a personal incentive to pay attention to what is happening in 53206: {snip}


African Americans represent nearly 40 percent of Milwaukee’s population, but their political clout has been diminished by laws that suppress the black vote. There is also the problem of African Americans choosing not to vote: Black turnout in Wisconsin dropped nearly 19 percent between the 2012 to the 2016 elections—a clear sign that, despite their historic need to mobilize black voters, Democrats haven’t been meeting the challenge especially well of late.

{snip} The area’s woes can be traced back to its federal classification as a “Negro and Slum Area” some 80 years ago—part of the practice of “redlining” African American districts across urban areas in the North in order to deny their residents access to home loans.

But many of 53206’s troubles are of a more recent vintage. A cratered industrial economic base; a tough-on-crime judicial system that preys on black citizens; and, now, a concerted effort by lawmakers to deprive those citizens of the vote—all have contributed to the longstanding sense that 53206’s uphill challenges may be too steep to surmount. {snip}

No aspect of that myth is more damaging than 53206’s claim to infamy: that it is the nation’s most incarcerated plot of land. Who would establish a long-term political organizing effort in such a community? How many businesses will go on writing off this zip code as a crime-ridden wasteland, unworthy of investment? {snip}

Like other Northern cities that hosted a major influx of African Americans fleeing from the South during the Great Migration and onward, Milwaukee did not exactly turn out to be the promised land. Redlining—the racist classification of many black-majority neighborhoods as unsound investments on the basis of what was euphemistically termed “residential security”—was one reason. Analysts had long categorized 53206 as the major part of a “D5” district—i.e., a high-risk area. Its residents were deemed “laborers” and “ne’er-do-wells.” On a practical level, this meant that the ability to get a home loan in 53206 was more fiction than fact, at least in the decades between the creation of the Federal Housing Administration in 1934 and Congress’s ratification of the Fair Housing Act in 1968. As Reggie Jackson, the head griot of America’s Black Holocaust Museum in Milwaukee, told me, “Redlining prevented people from gaining generational wealth which would allow them upgrade their house and move to a bigger house.”

On another, less tangible level, redlining is how the myth of 53206’s inherent criminality began.

As if redlining were not enough, Milwaukee’s surrounding counties implemented restrictive covenants preventing black tenants equal access to the housing market. This practice confined most blacks to the northwestern portion of the city, where 53206 lies. While the Supreme Court ruled such covenants to be unconstitutional in 1948, they remained on the books until Congress passed the Fair Housing Act.

And the legacy of the covenants, along with redlining, continued well into the twenty-first century. According to a 2016 report, in Milwaukee “whites represent 70 percent of the population, yet received 81 percent of the loans. African Americans are 16 percent of the population yet only received 4 percent of the loans.” In 2010, a sign that read “nigger lover” was placed in the yard of a mayor in a 95 percent white county after he approved a 180-unit public housing project there, according to a housing complaint filed by the U.S. Department of Justice. And the city’s segregation is stark: To this day, black people, for the most part, live on Milwaukee’s north side, while whites live on the south side.


{snip} As Alec MacGillis reported in his 2014 article in The New Republic about former Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, “Not long after a substantial African American community took shape, Milwaukee’s industrial base began to collapse and its manufacturing jobs disappeared. This left almost no time for the city to develop a black middle class or a leadership elite. Within short order, Milwaukee had some of the most glaring racial disparities in the country.”


This lack of economic opportunity is borne out in the data. Marc Levine, founder and director of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Center for Economic Development, has shown that black males born in 53206 into households in the 25th percentile of the national income distribution in the late 1970s and early 1980s remained in the twenty-fifth percentile in adulthood (over the years 2014-15). By contrast, white males in Milwaukee born into the same twenty-fifth percentile some 30 years ago rose to the forty-fifth percentile by adulthood. Between 2013 and 2017, only 46 percent of adults in 53206 held full-times jobs, compared to 75 percent in Milwaukee’s suburbs and 69 percent in the city of Milwaukee.

The deteriorating economic outlook in 53206 coincided in the 1990s with new tough-on-crime policies enacted at the state and federal levels—a devastating mix. When a 13-year-old Keisha Robinson arrived at 19th and Vine in 1986, just outside the 53206 zip code, she remembered Milwaukee as “a cool town.” She told me, “It wasn’t as bad here as it is now or as Chicago then.” But that began to change in the 1990s. “You just started seeing police everywhere,” she said. “People just started getting locked up.”


Wisconsin’s crackdown on urban crime led to drastic increases in its prison population. By the 2000s, over half of the black men in Milwaukee County in their thirties had state prison records. Combined with mandatory-minimum sentencing, the three strikes rule, and other punitive measures, the carceral state became an outsized presence in this small neighborhood.


In Wisconsin, probation is a pervasive ill. The average length of parole supervision there stands at nearly two times higher than the rest of the nation, according to a report by Columbia University’s Justice Lab. The same report found that over half of the state’s total 2017 prison population had been, at some point, under supervision or probation, and that those on parole or probation have to adhere to standards and requirements that are “numerous, onerous, confusing, and void of public safety justifications.” Revocation of parole is also fairly common, especially if you’re black. Reporting has found that the confusing requirements of parole, as well as longer parole times, increase “the likelihood an offender will be re-incarcerated for technical violations that do not involve criminal behavior.”

This is not an accident. Former Governor Scott Walker, as a member of the Wisconsin State Assembly, coauthored so-called truth-in-sentencing legislation in 1997 that aimed to limit the use of parole in favor of prison time. (Walker credited the Koch-funded America Legislative Exchange Council for supplying the language for the measure.) The prison population and those under supervision increased significantly following passage of the legislation, which ended parole opportunities for many categories of prisoners. The bill was particularly vicious in several respects: It made nonviolent property-crime and drug offenders “serve 100 percent of their prison time, eliminated the use of parole boards for people incarcerated after the year 2000, and provided no mechanism to keep judges’ sentences within any standardized ranges,” according to an in-depth 2016 report by City Lab.

{snip} But numerous studies have shown that this eye-opening statistic is a fiction. A 2013 study by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee found that Wisconsin had the highest incarceration rate for black men. Deeper in the study, researchers showed that a plurality of those incarcerated black men came from 53206. An indelicate conflation of these two statistics led to 53206’s dubious claim to fame.


Some might argue that the distinction doesn’t matter much. And surely 53206 suffers from a host of serious problems, including a very high incarceration rate. But 53206 stands as an extreme example of how a reputation for ingrained criminality can amplify a neighborhood’s ills, in a poisonous kind of negative feedback loop. It’s easier to criminalize black people and say they are prone to certain pathological tendencies when they are hyper-concentrated in one area. The scholars Barbara and Karen Fields called this “racecraft”—the idea that differences between races are rooted in “the eugenicist, biological racist notion that something—whether it is blood or genes—has created a set of scientifically distinct groupings of people.” In Milwaukee broadly and 53206 specifically, the task of racecraft is made easier, with black people relegated, both formally and informally, to certain areas that are considered godforsaken slums.


Furthermore, every two years, the Wisconsin Election Commission runs checks to deactivate the registration of anyone who hasn’t voted in four years. With longer prison sentences, there is a greater chance a felon’s registration will be deemed ineligible.

Robinson is deeply familiar with the many ways the state can take away a person’s vote. After she served her time for the child neglect charges, Robinson ran into trouble again in 2015. Her then-fiancé purchased a gun to protect him and his family amidst a neighborhood shooting spree. Soon after, the police raided her home yet again, claiming, as Robinson remembers it, that “her children had to have been involved in the shootings around the community.” When they found the gun, they slapped her and her fiancé with a felony charge for possession of a firearm. With that charge, she was sent back to jail for two years, and she was placed under supervision when she got out in 2017.

The incarceration problem in 53206 also exacerbates a voter ID problem. Many residents are unable to vote because they don’t have proper state-issued identification, like a driver’s license. In 2011, then-Governor Scott Walker signed Wisconsin Act 23 into law, requiring that voters present approved photo ID to cast a ballot. In Wisconsin, 55 percent of black men and 49 percent of black women do not have a valid driver’s license. And a 2007 study by the Employment and Training Institute at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee showed that only 4 percent of the formerly incarcerated in 53206 have valid driver’s licenses, often because of failure (or inability) to pay for municipal and misdemeanor citations and court costs.


BLOC employs 23 people, including Robinson and other neighborhood residents, as “civic ambassadors” who knock on doors to enlist residents to vote and get politically involved. BLOC boasts that it is “the only organization organizing off cycle,” according to founder Angela Lang, meaning that it’s driven by a long-term commitment to political and electoral reform, not just winning the next election. {snip}