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. Je’Leslie Taylor is one of five people featured in this series.
Je'Leslie Taylor | Racine, WI
Being a teacher had to be put on hold for a while. I went to work for the state at the Southern Wisconsin Center working with people who are developmentally disabled, and it was a great experience. Then they built Southern Oaks Girls’ School right next door, and I had a passion for working with girls so I worked there. That was my introduction to the Department of Corrections.
I started as a youth counselor. After a few years, I decided I wanted to gain a different perspective so I accepted a position in the Division of Community Corrections. I wanted to understand what happens when people who are in our prison system leave and what they need to re-enter their communities. I later got a promotion and came back to Southern Oaks Girls’ School as an assistant supervisor. We opened the first mental health unit for girls in the state of Wisconsin inside of a juvenile facility.
In corrections, you see some things you like and some things you don’t like. I asked myself, ‘How do I make a difference?’ I knew I had to work my way up the ranks to make the types of changes I wanted to see. When I was at Southern Oaks I said, ‘I’m going to be a warden one day,’ and just kept going towards that dream. I had great people in my corner to support me, my family and my mentors, and here I am today, the warden of Racine Youthful Offender Correctional Facility. I’m just so humbled and am in a position now where I can make a difference.
My goal is to turn this facility into a treatment and programming facility to focus on education and vocational programming. The young men in the Racine Youthful Offender Correctional Facility are between 18 and 24. I’ve seen what happens when they leave corrections and don’t have a job. It’s a struggle to go back to the same neighborhood and same dynamics. You may have changed, but your environment has not. Not having resources and people that you can reach out to when you’re struggling is hard, and sometimes they come back through our door because they don’t know what to do. So how do we change that? Well, one way is to make sure that when they are in here, we give them everything they need to be successful. We give them apprenticeships and prepare them, so when they leave, they leave with a job. And we help them make connections during their last year in here, so that when they get out and they’re struggling, they have resources to reach out to and people to help them, so they don’t feel alone.
I have been working in corrections for twenty-seven years. ‘Lock them up, put away the key’ is not the mentality anymore. You have to look at where they come from, what barriers are in play, mental health, and trauma. I talk to my boys in orientation about trauma because they don’t understand that they’ve experienced it. They think what they’ve been through is just normal, because they’ve seen nothing else. I am trying to get the staff to understand that we have to look at it sometimes through their eyes, which can be hard. It’s important that we take the time and listen to their stories. Everyone in here has a story to tell. Are we willing to listen so we can understand and better serve them and give them what they need? I always say these young people are survivors. Yes, they may have made some bad choices in their lives, but what was the story behind that?
I’m not a schoolteacher, but I teach in a different way. Our young men have a low self-confidence about themselves. They say, ‘Oh, I can’t do this.’ I tell them, ‘Yes, you can. Never say you can’t. You know how many people told me I wouldn’t be a warden? Look at me, I’m here, a black female. I admit, there may be some obstacles in your way that you have to get over, but you don’t give up. You can do it.’
I am so passionate about re-entry work because I see the difference it makes. I’m all about re-entry and how we in corrections can better serve and prepare them while they are here in prison, behind the walls. If we provide these young men with the proper programming, education, and treatment, my hope is that we can stop the prison pipeline. It’ll stop right here. When they leave, they’ll be set with a job and resources and apprenticeships and everything they need, so they don’t have to go through another prison door.
I know this is where God has placed me and this is my purpose in life. I do what I’ve got to do for these young men, the people that I serve. Then I’ve got to take care of my staff, because without them, this would not happen. Because I’ve come up the ranks and I’ve worked in different positions, I understand their challenges. Being in this position can be challenging, but I try to come in with a smile. People are like, ‘How are you so happy?’ I say, ‘You know what? No matter what problems, what challenges, what bad days I have, I know I’m doing God’s work.
Je’Leslie’s story was produced by Wisconsin Poet Laurette Dasha Kelly Hamilton and Jen Rubin. It is part of Love Wisconsin’s series on communitiy re-entry 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.
On any given day, over 48,000 youth in the United States are confined in facilities away from home as a result of juvenile justice or criminal justice involvement. Most are held in restrictive, correctional-style facilities, and thousands are held without even having had a trial. This report from the Prison Policy Initiative has more details.
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 taken by Chris Bacarella during the Odyssey Beyond Bars class taught at Oak Hill Correctional Facility.)