One mild October afternoon, as Anthony Cooper, Sr., 41, drove down South Park Street in Madison, he wished for a red light so he could pull up an old photo of him and his sons. The photo showed a young Cooper sitting on a chair in an orange jumpsuit issued to him when he was incarcerated. His two sons each sat on his knees. For Cooper, the most important thing after he was released from prison was to show his two boys how to live a better life. He didn’t want to make them think prison was part of the natural progression for their lives.
“If I got back out here selling drugs and, eventually at some point, if I end up going back to prison, that just would have been too normal for them, and that wasn’t the environment I wanted my kids to be a part of,” Cooper says.
Cooper is a warm and inviting man backed by a calm but strong voice. When he’s surrounded by people in his community, it’s rare to see him without a smile. He talks with a sincerity that lets you know he believes every word that he says, especially when he’s talking about his work, which he has a direct and personal connection to. Cooper is the vice president of re-entry and strategic partnerships for Nehemiah Center for Urban Leadership Development, a Madison-based organization working to uplift community members who need extra support, especially after being released from prison or jail.
In 1999, when Cooper was in his early 20s, he was charged with six felonies and two misdemeanors. He later pled guilty to fleeing from a police officer, felony manufacture and delivery, and possession of heroin. He was sentenced to four years in prison with 10 years of probation. “I was either going to allow that to defeat me, or I was going to allow that to build me,” Cooper says. “I decided to allow that to build me and not stop me.” Upon his release from prison two years into his four-year sentence, he was faced with a choice: continue back down that path or find a new option. He chose to change his life for the better and to become the father he wanted to be. A fear of not being there for his sons and a desire to put a dent in the cycle of recidivism drove him to become the man he is now.
Like many people who have been incarcerated, Cooper faced a number of challenges upon his release: difficulty finding a job, troubles with housing and countless opportunities to be sent back to prison. Anything from serious offenses, including assault, to smaller incidents, such as an argument in a public space — or even an unsupported allegation — can send someone back to prison. For Cooper, it was his drive to make a better life that kept him out.
Since 2000, there has been a split between people eligible to receive parole versus those who will receive extended supervision. Parole happens when a person is convicted of a crime, is sentenced for a period of time to be spent in prison, then is released back into their community with supervision and a set of rules and conditions they must follow until the length of the sentence comes to a close. Starting on Jan. 1, 2000, Wisconsin enacted Truth-in-Sentencing laws, which put an end to parole for cases closed after that date. These laws state that people who are convicted of a felony and sentenced to at least one year in prison must serve the entirety of their sentence in addition to a period of extended supervision that, by law, must be at least a quarter the length of their prison sentence. Both of these definitions fit under the umbrella term of community supervision.
Some of the rules associated with community supervision are as straightforward as not breaking the law. Others are more complex, nuanced or vague. The Wisconsin Department of Corrections website notes that people under supervision must ask permission before purchasing items on credit, operating a motor vehicle or changing jobs. More broadly, according to the Department of Corrections website, those under community supervision must follow any additional rules established by their respective supervision agents. With so many different rules, the reasons for revocation can vary greatly. A new conviction of a crime or misdemeanor usually leads to revocation. Not only are there a lot of rules to keep track of, but their enforcement is entirely up to the supervision agent handling the case. Sometimes infractions are ignored, and other times they can lead to detainment, and in more severe cases, reimprisonment.
The minutiae of the rules can be a lot to process on top of the overwhelming responsibilities that come with re-entering a society that is not nearly as structured as life in prison. Cecelia Klingele, an associate professor in the University of Wisconsin Law School and expert on criminal justice policy, says there are four, maybe five, purposes of punishment: punishment, rehabilitation, incapacitation and deterrence, with restoration as the potential fifth purpose. Together, these motivations for punishment set the groundwork for the laws and sentencing protocols for when those laws are broken.
Community supervision, then, comes at a bit of a crossroads between rehabilitation and deterrence. On one hand, the system is ideally set up to help those who have been released from prison to transition into a community-based life. Klingele says rules and conditions such as living in a halfway house, mandatory therapies or limits on travel may seem like inconsequential, fair rules on their own, but when looked at cumulatively, “those restrictions are difficult for people to navigate while also forming strong community bonds, which will generally predict future success.”
“When you throw a whole bunch of rules at once and ask people to manage all those competing demands simultaneously, some people do very well with the structure that provides, and many people become overwhelmed and have difficulty complying with all of the obligations,” Klingele says.
While Cooper was highly motivated to create a better life for his sons after being released from prison, it wasn’t as simple as finding a well-paying 9-5 job that allowed him to spend time with them in his time off.
“I was working as many hours as I [could], but … the time that I was away from my sons, I wasn’t able to make that up,” Cooper says.
His first job post-release paid him $4.75 per hour.
Despite his best efforts to stay on the straight and narrow, Cooper remembers an incident that, due to no fault of his own, could have led to his parole being revoked. While on his way back from work, he was stopped by a group of police officers. The officers confused Cooper for a man they were searching for for an unrelated offense. Cooper recalls the officers having their guns drawn until an officer who was familiar with the intended perpetrator said Cooper wasn’t who they were looking for. The incident angered Cooper, and it eventually began an argument that could have led to Cooper’s arrest under different circumstances.
With perseverance, Cooper continued through the struggles he faced without any major derailments along the way. After making a deliberate effort to put himself on a narrow path toward successful re-entry, his original 10 years of parole was cut to three.
Supervision agents are on the front lines of a person’s reintegration into their community, and often they can have a tremendous amount of power when it comes to the success someone may have with re-entry.
“Sometimes probation officers can be a really needed link for people who don’t have a lot of guidance and haven’t had positive support, and [supervision officers] can provide that kind of mentorship and encouragement that helps people get their lives on track,” Klingele says.
According to Tristan Cook, communications director for the Wisconsin Department of Corrections, the responsibilities of supervision agents are twofold: help supervisees find resources to ease the transition and hold offenders accountable for any violations of their terms.
While helping supervisees find resources is fairly straightforward — reaching out to organizations including Nehemiah, Madison-area Urban Ministry and other groups geared toward helping with the transition — holding offenders accountable can be a more nuanced process.
According to an email from Cook, the process of a review begins with an investigation, and if a violation is suspected, that individual may have a hold placed on their supervision as the investigation continues. If the allegation is substantiated, a plan is made to determine what the best course of action is for both the public and the offender.
The process of revoking an offender’s supervision relies on either determining that confinement is necessary for the protection of the public or that the offender’s rehabilitation would be most successful in confinement, Cook wrote in an email.According to Cook, supervision officers are responsible for enforcing every violation of supervision, but ultimately, the decision is made by an administrative law judge after an investigation has come to a close.
In an email, Cook explained new criminal convictions were the most common reason for revocation of supervision in 2017, making up 23 percent of all new prison admissions, which begs the question: How successful are supervision agents and the programs built to aid with re-entry?
There is no single solution to staying out of prison after being released. Many times, the odds are stacked heavily against those on supervision. Klingele says these populations, in addition to carrying the baggage of their conviction throughout their lives, are also hugely affected by poor access to health care, poor employment opportunities and poor educational access.
Klingele says, “You see among incarcerated populations higher-than-average rates of almost every kind of social and physical ill that you can imagine.”
Local organizations in Madison, including Nehemiah and Madison-area Urban Ministry, exist to help people facing these issues while under community supervision so they can have a greater chance at success. Many of these organizations provide programs to assist with finding housing and job placement, and even offer weekly support group meetings to support an open dialogue about the problems at hand.
“We use our own testimonies,” Cooper says. “That’s one part of it but then also bring them something new — other ways of looking at life.”
While exact numbers for the success and the scope of these organizations can be hard to come by, Madison-area Urban Ministry, a United Way agency, constantly evaluates their programs. According to its 2016 annual report, the agency’s Journey Home program, which aims to tear down the barriers to successful re-entry, had a recidivism rate of 6.8 to 14 percent, compared with the statewide average of 60 to 70 percent. The work these groups are doing can bring enormous levels of hope to someone’s life.
Despite the apparent success of some of these programs, there can still be issues with accessing them in the first place. Transportation falls through. Work shifts get in the way. Therapy sessions cause schedule conflicts.
“So when life happens, how do you walk them down that path?” Cooper asks. “How do you make sure that they’re being able to be supported?” He later answers his own question. “Do things the right way, as right as possible.”
Before his drive down South Park Street on that early October afternoon, Cooper walked the grounds of the Fountain of Life Church on Madison’s south side. He had just returned from a week-long trip to New Orleans with his wife. It was his first time visiting the city, and he seemed invigorated. He talked about trying to take a break from work, but somehow it kept creeping back into the trip. It’s hard to escape work when there is always more to be done, and there are more people to help.
Cooper has been working with Nehemiah for nearly six years now, and he’s been a member of Fountain of Life Church for 14. His life is dedicated to helping people who are experiencing the same kinds of struggles he faced years ago. It’s impossible to say how many people Cooper and the rest of Nehemiah have helped over the years, but their efforts give people an opportunity to try again and build themselves anew.
“There’s not a perfect person on this Earth. Some people have been caught for it. Some people have not,” Cooper says. “Most people that’re incarcerated just want a second chance.”
Cooper got his chance, and now he’s helping others get theirs.