In the following America ReFramed UNFILTERED contribution, filmmaker Keith McQuirter discusses what he found to be “The Moral Crisis of Mass Incarceration.”

I had the honor of sharing MILWAUKEE 53206 with audiences across the United States. It is refreshing to hear a diversity of responses from people who were touched by the film. After a screening, one woman whose story was especially memorable approached me while wiping tears from her eyes. She stated that she was a senior probation officer in the state of Wisconsin, and after watching MILWAUKEE 53206, she realized that in her everyday management she never fully considered the long-term effects on the families of parolees. While she was grateful to me for shedding light on the issue, I wondered how many people she had supervised over her career went without the benefit of that consideration.

Keith McQuirter with the cast of MILWAUKEE 53206 speaks on a panel at the Milwaukee Film Festival. Photo credit: Alan Herzberg.

I appreciated her honesty and willingness to share her reflections, but it left me questioning how many of us, including a senior probation officer who wields significant power over the daily lives of the paroled, are blind when it comes to the full scope of the individual’s family life or the community at large. The widely reported data speaks volumes about our values as a nation whether you work outside or in the criminal justice system.

  • The United States represents 5 percent of the world’s population, but it holds a staggering 25 percent of its total prison population.
  • Approximately 6.7 million people are under correctional supervision.
  • An estimated 2.7 million children in the United States with at least one parent in prison or jail.

These astronomical data sets have never been seen in human history and are strangling families and decimating entire communities. This uniquely American phenomenon defined as mass incarceration is a system of control that includes over-policing, judicial overreach, over-sentencing and supervision that is the first response and all-purpose solution to anything appearing to be criminal. Mass incarceration is a billion-dollar industry that thrives and capitalizes selling living human bodies as commodities, creating whole economies in cities and post-industrial regions of the country. What is most compelling about the data, the numbers and the terminology “mass incarceration”, is that despite the horrific and realistic portrait they paint, especially for communities of color, for many people the brutality of the criminal justice system remains removed from everyday understanding.

Dennis Walton, outreach coordinator of the Milwaukee Fatherhood Initiative, teaching a fatherhood class at The Milwaukee House of Corrections. Photo credit: Noel Spirandelli.

MILWAUKEE 53206 was created out of the necessity to explore mass incarceration as a moral crisis, particularly as it relates to the black family, who is impacted disproportionately. This is what brought me to the north side of Milwaukee, to the ZIP code 53206 with the highest incarceration rate among black males in the country. According to the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee study, 62 percent of its men have been imprisoned by age 34. To understand the reality of this statistic, I followed the community for over a year getting to know the real stories behind the number. MILWAUKEE 53206 was never intended to be a full-scale investigative report on the cause of mass incarceration, but rather a nuanced portrait of its effects – psychological, emotional and generational.

The documentary chronicles the lives of Beverly Walker, Dennis Walton and Chad Wilson, as we witness firsthand the pressure and pain of excessive jail sentences, parole policies and the lifelong stigma of being labeled a felon. We experience how a community fights to end the pipeline causing so many of its young men to end up in prison. These stories humanize incarceration and allow us to take an intimate look at this tragically devised social injustice and its outward ripple effects. Because these are real people rather than white paper statistics, my hope is that audiences are able to find their way into new understandings about our current criminal justice system.

Beverly and Baron Walker’s youngest son shares a personal letter he wrote to the Wisconsin parole board about what life is like without his father. Credit: Transforms Films, Inc.

While researching the film, I met a woman named Lola whose grandson lives with mental illness and was jailed in Milwaukee County. On more than one occasion she said something I will never forget: “When one family member serves time, the entire family serves time.” I found this to be true for so many families in 53206 including those we follow in the film. With the majority of the families in this ZIP code living with the weight of incarceration, Lola was right. It can be said this entire community is serving time. This harrowing message rings true for ZIP codes across the country.

It is my fervent hope that the courage of the people in the documentary inspires all of us to take action. These individuals show us that if the moral compass of how we think about and respond to our criminal justice system shifts, we have the capacity to make dramatic and systemic change. I look forward to MILWAUKEE 53206 continuing to initiate national dialogue and bring first-time awareness to large parts of the country that are unfamiliar with the devastating impact of mass incarceration. The nation is being challenged with a revolution of values when it comes to our prison crisis, and how we respond will determine the strength and vitality of our families and communities for generations to come.

By Director & Producer Keith McQuirter, P.G.A.

Keith McQuirter is an award-winning producer and director. He co-produced the five-part Peabody Award winning and Prime Time Emmy nominated docu-series Brick City for the Sundance Channel. Having worked as a producer in advertising, Keith produced commercials for the some of the biggest brands in entertainment, apparel, beauty, food and consumer products. Keith studied film and television production at New York University Tisch School of the Arts where he was awarded the Martin Scorsese Young Filmmaker Award. He also studied directing at the National Theater Institute. His production company Decoder Media is based in New York City. His film, MILWAUKEE 53206 airs Tuesday, April 3rd 8/7c on AMERICA REFRAMED.

AMERICA REFRAMED is programmed on Tuesday nights @ 8/7c on WORLD Channel. Streaming of the film begins the day after the broadcast on worldchannel.org and all station-branded PBS platforms including PBS.org, and on PBS apps for iOS, Android, Roku, Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV and Chromecast.

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AMERICA REFRAMED
AMERICA REFRAMED is a co-production of the WORLD Channel and American Documentary, Inc. AMERICA REFRAMED curates a diverse selection of films highlighting innovative and artistic approaches to storytelling from emerging and veteran filmmakers alike. Viewers will be immersed in personal stories from the streets of towns big and small to the exurbs and country roads that span the spectrum of American life. The documentaries invite audiences to reflect on topics as varied as culture, health care, politics, gun violence, religion and more. An award-winning documentary series, AMERICA REFRAMED is the recipient of an Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award for broadcast journalism. The series has earned several Christopher, GRACIE, Telly and Cine Golden Eagle Awards, as well as nominations for an EMMY, Independent Documentary Association, and Imagen Award.