Every day, people are released from prison and return to communities across the state to rebuild their lives. Wisconsin has an incarceration rate of 676 per 100,000 people and, notably, imprisons Black men at a higher rate than any other state in America. The barriers people face when they are released can be overwhelming and are considered partially responsible for high rates of re-arrest. In this series, we are featuring people who have been incarcerated or who work within the prison system. Their stories focus on the transition from prison and illustrate the value to both individuals and communities that comes with investing in their re-entry. Eli Rivera is one of the five people featured in this series.
Eli Rivera | Milwaukee, WI
I’m first-generation born and raised in Milwaukee. My mom and abuelita moved to Milwaukee when my mom was in her early teens. I grew up not having. I grew up seeing cops in my neighborhood, rats in the alley, all the things you see when you are raised poor.
It makes you think you’re less than—otherwise everybody would be living the same, right? My father, due to his own mental challenges with depression and being bipolar, checked out when I was about four years old. I was mainly raised by women. My family was a loving family. I had good people in my life.
My mom did her best. She eventually got her GED and then continued to pursue higher education all the way to her master’s. She was big on education. Her thought was, ‘Hey, just pull the kid out of the hood and send him to a suburban school and everything should be all right.’ So, I went from being a have-not surrounded by other have-nots and feeling good about myself to being around the haves and being the have-not. I think it added another layer of, ‘I got to get my hustle on if I want to get there.’ I always had the feeling that I don’t belong here but I’m going to get mine one of these days. I always had that chip on my shoulder.
That led to me making decisions that resulted in my incarceration. I was in prison for two years. When you come out of incarceration, the challenge is how do you change how you see yourself? How do you decide you have potential? A lot of us in prison had been treated as lowlifes, as nothing. It’s something that one starts to believe.
I met my business partner, Ruben Gaona, in 2019 at a panel discussion hosted by American Family Insurance Institute about the challenge of finding a job with a felony conviction. That was our experience, too. Ruben and I decided to follow our dream and create a comprehensive, anti-bias employment platform that we call ‘The Way Out’. We connect previously incarcerated people with companies providing second-chance employment opportunities.
Within their first year of release, only 55% of the formerly incarcerated find employment. We want to change that. Having the opportunity to make a living wage after prison can make all the difference—the mental stress of no income can lead to criminal thinking.
Rueben and I wanted to give back to folks in our communities. There is that level of trust. The people who come to us understand that we have experienced these challenges ourselves and we know what that feeling is. We don’t want anyone to get lost in the system. That contributes to the two-thirds of folks that end up re-incarcerated within three years because they think, ‘Someone forgot about me again. I don’t have value. I’m not important’.
We offer this very customized, very hands-on re-entry program. We know the moment someone’s coming out of prison. People are either referred to us, find us by word of mouth, or they come to the website. We commit the moment someone comes into ‘The Way Out’ system. Within 12 hours we’ve made first contact, within 24 hours we’ve interviewed them, within 36 hours they’re assigned a primary Reentry Service Provider. We want to have that level of connection—to say, ‘Welcome, we see you. Let’s get going’.
First, we help our clients find employment. For example, we recently were approached by a lady who’s starting her own dog training franchise and wants to work with one of our clients because he spent a significant amount of the 26 years he was incarcerated training dogs.
After helping clients find employment, our mobile re-entry support app comes in because we understand they need a strong support network. The app is a dashboard that establishes real-time communication between returning citizens and re-entry service providers. Everyone connected to this person’s journey knows at any given time if they need some help. Are they moving in the right direction? Do they need a little push here? Do we need to reassess what they thought they wanted to do initially? We don’t ever tell anybody what they need to be doing—they tell us and then we make sure that the app is matching what they told us. Then that’s their way of inviting us into their lives to hold them accountable.
‘The Way Out’ helps folks who were incarcerated explore their potential greatness. There is a stigma to being a convicted felon entering the world again, which is added to the stigma that was there in the first place. So, you are buried in stigma. I would like to ask folks never to judge someone by some of their actions. Allow them to live a lifetime and judge them by the sum of their actions. We can all have time to come to those personal resolutions within ourselves to see our own greatness and then contribute back. That may be on your deathbed, that may be in your 50s, that may be in your 30s, who knows when it happens for you. But don’t judge anyone until they’ve lived their life.
Eli’s story was produced by Dasha Kelly Hamilton and Jen Rubin. It is part of Love Wisconsin’s series on the barriers people face when re-entering their communities after incarceration.
This series was funded by the “Why it Matters: Civic and Electoral Participation” initiative, administered by the Federation of State Humanities Councils and funded by Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
The U.S locks up more people per capita than any other nation. This chart was taken from Prison Policy Initiative report, ‘Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2020’.
Eli Rivera (with microphone) and Ruben Gaona (in shirt and tie) co-founders of The Way Out were featured in the Wisconsin Business Journal. In this photo they are pitching their anti-bias job-hiring platform for justice-involved individuals. You can learn more about ‘The Way Out’ on their website.
The Brookings Institution report on Work and Opportunity Before and After Incarceration provides a more in-depth look at this issue.
Prison education is worth the investment. People who complete college coursework while incarcerated are more likely to be self-sufficient upon re-entry and less likely to return to prison. A 2014 study by the Rand Corporation found that inmates participating in prison education programs had a 43 percent lower chance of going back to prison after being released. It also found that the odds of getting a job after being released was 13 percent higher for those that took classes while incarcerated.
(Photo of Carl Lewis taken by Chris Bacarella during the Odyssey Beyond Bars writing class at Oak Hill Correctional Facility.)
Wisconsin Watch examined how convictions bar many people from jobs. Since people of color in Wisconsin have higher incarceration rates than whites, many jobs and opportunities remain out of reach for them.
To learn more about who is incarcerated in Wisconsin, you can read the 2019 Profile of Persons in Our Care report from the Department of Corrections.