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-entry. 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. Ventae Parrow is one of five people featured in this series on re-entry.
Ventae Parrow| Milwaukee, WI
When I was eight my mom gave my father an ultimatum to get off the streets. He thought she was playing, but she wasn’t. So we left. She felt that taking us away from the lifestyle he lived would give us the best chance of living an upright lifestyle. Her sister lived in Milwaukee and said, ‘Just come down here.’ So I ended up moving to Milwaukee in the late 1980s.
When my mother was working three jobs, I stayed home to help my siblings with homework, prepare meals, make sure they got to bed for school and all that. I had to mature fast. I didn’t get a chance to enjoy a child’s life like most children do. That’s some of my history.
I made a lot of poor choices, but I was making some great choices at the same time. One of the choices I’m proud of, although it was negative, I didn’t let my brothers around me if I was selling drugs on the street. I always came around them when everything was done with the spoils, some income. I gave them a percent of that income so they could buy whatever they needed so they wouldn’t get picked on when they went to school.
I lived my life from birth to 2002 with high risk and just getting involved in a lot of stuff that I shouldn’t have gotten involved in because I wasn’t brought up to get involved in that. But nonetheless, I did. My poor choices led me to juvenile detention and later incarceration. I went to prison in 2001 and came out in 2008.
I had played with the Most High throughout my life. I often said, ‘You get me out of this situation and that situation, and I’m going to be your servant and live an upright lifestyle,’ which I never did. He kept His side of the bargain and got me out of the situation, but I went right back to the illegal lifestyle I was living instead of doing what I told Him I was going to do. While I was incarcerated, some believers came from Christian Faith Fellowship, and I went to that service. I’ll never forget it. It was New Year’s Eve 2002. I went to that service and I poured out my heart. I became a believer that day. Life didn’t become peaches and cream because of that; I still had these consequences that I had to deal with. I was still facing years in prison.
So even though I was in a dark place, I said that when I got out I was not going to go back and do crime again. I started connecting with organizations that help with re-entry. After I got out of prison, I was sent back to prison on three separate occasions for crimeless revocations, meaning I violated a technical rule of probation. The Department of Corrections sends thousands of people on probation and parole back to prison for breaking a rule of supervision, such as not being on time for curfew, not being on time for an office visit or even accepting employment without their agent’s consent. I was a college student at MATC studying to become an alcohol and drug abuse counselor. It strikes me as interesting that I could go from being a college student to the penitentiary without committing a crime or breaking the law. They were able to take me in front of an administrative law judge and give me two years in prison and then turn around and give me 14 months in prison and then turn around and give me a year and eight months in prison, and then turn around and give me a 45-day sanction. It has been an ongoing theme since 2008 where I’ve been in and out of the penitentiary but haven’t committed a crime since 1999. I feel like because I paid my debt to society I shouldn’t have to continue to be penalized from something that happened in 1999 due to the way that the system is rigged for me to fail instead of to succeed. I’m not saying the person shouldn’t receive some type of discipline or punishment, but they shouldn’t be put back in prison. There should be a way for them to rehabilitate themselves, some type of program that is really going to benefit society.
Now I am with EXPO (EX-Incarcerated People Organizing) to restore formerly incarcerated people to full participation in the life of our communities. Right now, we’re lobbying to unlock the vote. Wisconsin bars people who are in prison, on probation, on parole, and/or on extended supervision from voting. That’s what we’re doing right now— making sure that anybody that can’t vote ends up being able to vote.
I always give four things to any person I communicate with because these four things are important. If a human being doesn’t establish these four, I can guarantee you their life is going to be meaningless. I had to establish who created me, why he created me, what purpose he created me for, and how to fulfill that purpose. When I was in prison I told myself, ‘Okay, when I get out of here, I’m going to be one of the most productive citizens and I’ll be an asset to any person that’s around me or I’m around because guess what? I’ve already conditioned myself to be that asset.
Ventae’s story was produced by Wisconsin Poet Laurette Dasha Kelly Hamilton and Jen Rubin. It is part of Love Wisconsin’s series on 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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.)
Ventae volunteers with EXPO (EX-incarcerated People Organizing). They work to “end mass incarceration, eliminate all forms of structural discrimination against formerly incarcerated people, and restore formerly incarcerated people to full participation in the life of our communities”.
Studies have shown that Wisconsin’s high supervision rate can cause, rather than prevent, longer incarceration.