By Keith McQuirter
“What more does Wisconsin need to know in order to find out I’m not a menace to society? That is actually the question I would like to know myself.” -Baron Walker
Baron Walker remembers the morning when he and his grandfather stood across from each other in the driveway of his grandfather’s house. Both men kicking the tires of Baron’s black 1989 Mercury Cougar LS, neither looked at the other the entire time they spoke.
“Whatever you’re doing, just be careful, and be safe,” Baron remembers his grandfather saying to him, as if he had intuitively read his mind.
A clean-cut, husky man, Baron’s grandfather worked at the Patrick Cudahy pork processing plant in the suburbs of Milwaukee, where he’d earned a steady income for his family for many years. However, it was no secret that his grandson was drawn to the fast life of the streets. In spite of the deep love he felt toward Baron, the elder man couldn’t bring himself to say what needed to be said. He kept looking at the ground.
“He said he basically wouldn’t want to waste his time trying to tell me not to do what I already had my mind made out to do,” Baron recalls.
His grandfather turned around and walked toward the house. Baron got in his car, and drove off.
It was the third of January, 1996. Baron was twenty-two. Three weeks earlier, Baron had successfully robbed his first bank with a crew of seasoned bank robbers. By late afternoon, during the first snow of the year, they went on to complete what was Baron’s second heist. But this time, they were not so lucky, and by evening’s end, Baron would have to make the decision to surrender to the police or to lose his life to the twelve- gauge shotgun aimed dead-center at his chest.
In 2015, I came to Milwaukee seeking to understand why the 53206 ZIP code, which represented the north side of the city, was hailed by a UW-Milwaukee study as the most incarcerated ZIP code in the nation. By age thirty-four, the study showed sixty-two percent of African American men in 53206 will have been imprisoned.
Many, including myself, would never have imagined a Milwaukee ZIP code outpacing the incarceration rates of ZIP codes in major cities like Detroit, Philadelphia, New Orleans, and St. Louis as the imprisonment capital of America for black men.
I first heard of Baron’s story while researching online, and I discovered a 2014 audio series by WUWM 89.9 radio called “I Am More Than My Record.” In it, Baron’s wife Beverly Walker explained in thirty-four seconds how, despite his incarceration, Baron remained in the life of his family, as a husband and father of five, by telephone. She described how he tutored their children in the fifteen-minute blocks prison calls allow, and that he sent loads of cut-out coupons home so he could help financially.
I reached out to Beverly regarding the documentary I was making about the incarceration crisis in 53206. Like so many people when approached by media, she was cautious—rightfully so. However, she agreed to have a conversation in public. A few days later, on a Saturday morning in August of 2015, I met Beverly at Sherman Perk Coffee Shop.
She was poised and graceful as she entered the colorful, quirky diner. Soon after we sat down, Baron called from Fox Lake Correctional Institution and joined in by speakerphone. We talked at length about the process of documentary filmmaking, and what it would entail if they were to get involved. As we parted, they said they needed to discuss everything as a family. Two days later Beverly called and said, “We’re in.”
Baron remained incarcerated. In 2015 he was serving year nineteen of the sixty-year sentence for the two armed bank robberies. (While nothing can reduce the gravity of his actions, thankfully, no one had been physically injured.) Baron had been sentenced prior to Wisconsin’s adoption of its Truth-in-Sentencing Law. Such laws were enacted in forty-two states and the District of Columbia during the late 1990s and early 2000s. These laws came in several varieties, and under the Wisconsin version, inmates had to serve their full sentence—with no eligibility for parole. Yet Baron—along with approximately three thousand other inmates in the state who were eligible for parole at that time—were also subject to this new law.
Baron, his family, and even the judge who sentenced him had expected that after serving 25 percent of that sixty-year sentence, he would be paroled. For pre-Truth-in-Sentencing prisoners like Baron, there was also presumptive mandatory release, at maximum, after an inmate had served two-thirds of his or her time.
However, nineteen years later, four years past the time he first became eligible for parole, Baron remained in prison. When I first met him in 2015, he was forty-one.
Even Baron was surprised by the person who first got him involved in robbing banks. It was a short, stocky college kid who was recognized for staying on the straight and narrow. Baron admired him for this; Baron was known for being intractable and had a street reputation.
At the time, Baron had been dealing drugs. As he puts it, “I was more devoted to the street, life was always living on the edge. Somebody was always telling me that I was supposed to be here, I was supposed to do this, and this way and that way. The streets seem to just accept.”
Before his family moved to the 53206 ZIP code, Baron lived in the Hillside Housing Projects in one of the roughest areas of the city. He grew up a freckled-faced kid with red hair. He was known as “Red” to his family. In addition to the values he was being taught at home, he learned about life from the streets. He called the latter a miseducation, and a misunderstanding of what it was to be a man.
Still, Baron had a conscience. He had a churchgoing mother, and had been raised well. Growing up, he cites The Autobiography of Malcolm X as having influenced him tremendously. Reading it, he says, made him have “a love for my people, for my culture. So when I try to sell drugs it was contrary to that. It’s a contrast, so I would do it for a while and I stopped.”
While dealing, Baron said his intention was to “ride this thing, get this money, and open up a club.” For a while, he recalls, he went legit: “I had a job . . . I was working twelve hours a day and it was a pretty good job. I was bringing home like close to seven hundred dollars every week. But it felt like I wasn’t living, I didn’t have a life. You know, when everybody else was doing something, going somewhere . . . I feel like I was just a slave to the job.”
One day he got into an argument with his girlfriend at the time, and went to Capitol Court Mall to cool off. That’s when he met that college kid—the one he admired. The one who would turn him on to robbing banks. He and his crew were younger than Baron. Prior to that time, Baron remembers of that kid: “I was proud of him ‘cause I see him and he was still going to school, and I was trying to sell drugs. I was telling him I’m glad that he was going somewhere better than me. He even turned me down [when I offered him money], and I was even proud of that because it felt like he didn’t want no part of what was dark and dirty.”
Baron recalls of that fateful encounter at the mall, “But now I see him and he got all this big old slab of chain, a coat, and some Timberlands.” Curious about all that newfound polish and bling, Baron asked him, “What you doing?”
Baron joined them for his first robbery: “It was hard, to be honest. I can tell you all that tough-guy gangster nonsense. But yeah, it was scary. It was scary because everything happens in a matter of seconds and because it’s unpredictable. You enter into a place and you don’t know what’s going on, who is who, who may also have a weapon, and especially when you go in with a partner. To rob a bank, you don’t know. You can’t control him, his decision, his choice.”
The first robbery, however, was flawless—and bloodless. A total success. “I felt relieved afterwards. We felt like we had a sense of power,” says Baron. “We had a lot of money and I went and got a car and bought some Christmas stuff for my family. We really started acting as though we were invincible.”
His second bank robbery: a total disaster. Their haul from the first robbery had been $30,000. They didn’t even need the money. Their team was in disagreement and disarray about robbing the next bank. Perhaps they had gotten overconfident—even greedy.
Baron says of the next heist, “We went there in a spur of the moment. We didn’t have all our guns. It was really crazy. So we went in there and it seemed like it was, it seemed like out of control, really.”
At that bank, “A lady had panicked. She just froze up, and I was starting to be concerned about whether or not my partner was gonna shoot her. So I had, I stood in front of her, and moved her out the way.”
Baron grabbed the money from the register. It was booby trapped with dye packs and the repugnant smell of sulfur. When they got outside, Baron threw away the soiled money in the street and ran.
When they arrived at the house, an argument ensued between Baron and one of his partners about throwing the money away. Baron told him the money was no good, but his partner insisted on retrieving it despite Baron’s insistent protest.
When his partner went down the block to retrieve the money, the police saw him pick something up, and surrounded him. Things escalated. Next thing, they were headed to the house where Baron was hiding.
While downstairs, the police interrogated Baron’s friend, his friend’s sister, and others, asking if there was anybody else at the house. Each time, they lied: No. The officers made their way up to the bedrooms upstairs, and there they found Baron in one of them, sitting on a bed. One officer pointed a twelve-gauge shotgun at his chest. Baron thought he was going to die.
As he was being arrested, that was the moment when “reality hit.” Baron began to realize what this would mean for those he loved: “I thought about my nieces. I thought about my grandfather. I thought about my son. I was supposed to get custody of my son the next day, the very next day . . . Everything just felt like it was over. I knew that this time is a wrap. I really messed up.”
But here’s what stayed with Baron most: When he left the house early that morning, the day of the robbery, he remembered that his mother, Jo Esther, was crying because she was concerned about the young lady he was dating at the time—his son’s mother. His girlfriend had many issues, including drug abuse. Says Baron of his mother, “She’s like, ‘I’m trying to tell you that girl is no good. Leave her alone.’”
Baron digs deeper: “I remember when I saw my mother crying on the porch. I had never seen her do that. And I was pulling out of the driveway, and I see her crying, and I stopped, I really stopped, and I looked at her. Then I remember thinking: ‘Wow, she really needs this. She’s really serious about what she’s telling me about this girl. And I can see it . . . When I lost my mother, the last time I seen her in the world, she was standing on the porch crying, and I had made her cry.’”
After the botched robbery and court proceedings, he entered prison a troubled young man. And at first, he continued the behavior he’d learned on the streets. Eventually it led to him being accused, in one incident, of attempting to incite a riot, and despite his denials, it landed him in prolonged solitary confinement—also known as the Hole. He was segregated for five years, and sent to a super-maximum prison in Boscobel, Wisconsin, where there is only solitary confinement.
Shackled and assigned two guard escorts, he was given an hour a day of sunlight. While there, Baron thought about the fact that—if he never received parole—he’d do this until his release at eighty-one-years old. It was his mother’s influence, steady and lifelong, that finally brought about change in Baron. His mother was an alcohol and drug counselor, and her love and instruction stayed with him long after that cell door slammed, giving him a belief in himself and the assurance that God would make a way for him.
Baron came to his own day of reckoning when he kept seeing the pain he was inflicting on the people that he loved. He decided then to step up and set the course of his own life: the sense of agency he’d been seeking as a young man (but misguidedly so) redirected and rekindled. Baron began to reach out for help with the hardship of his prolonged prison sentence, writing letters to his mother’s church. He then wrote to more than twenty churches, in Milwaukee, Racine, and Kenosha.
He asked them to be a voice for him while in these inhumane conditions but also to be a counselor and guide, because that’s where you go when you need help—you go to the church. He told them of his five-year confinement in the Hole, with its rubber-stamp interviews to justify further segregation. The powers that be felt he was still a danger to himself and others, and sent him back inside the Hole. In the end, a few churches promised prayers, but no involvement with the politics of prison. In the year 2000, Baron became a Muslim, and denounced his affiliation to any gangs.
Always told he was smart, Baron didn’t realize that his natural ability to solve problems was actually intelligence. He just thought he always found a way to get solutions. In prison Baron found both solace and confidence in learning and absorbing everything available to him. He worked in food service as an assistant cook, a prep cook, and the lead cook in the bakery. The inspiration for his work ethic was his mother’s words: “Do your best in the work you do, no matter what you do.” He looked forward to going to work every morning, having a sense of purpose. He took the time to learn self-control, communication, and cooperation. He also increased in curiosity and confidence.
Baron’s life-altering religious conversion became all-consuming, giving him those principles to live by that he’d previously lacked—even in spite of his mother’s dedicated, ongoing efforts to give her son sage and loving counsel. What emerged was a man who thrived in any circumstance. He learned the gift of hard work and built himself up, only to face the hardest challenge his life would bring him thus far: the murder of his mother by a man who had once been his friend. These were the darkest days of his life. This unexpected, brutal crime that took the life of the woman who was his rock was unimaginable. The grief was so intense, he couldn’t move. He didn’t want to see the sun, didn’t want to wake up.
His supervisor in the food program at prison let him take the time to grieve, giving him an unheard-of two weeks off. He was so concerned about Baron that he allowed co-workers time off to comfort and support him as well. It was at this point that Baron and Beverly learned the complexity and power of the Department of Corrections and the parole board. It was in 2010 that Baron first went before the parole board. The parole liaison was both surprised and impressed at the accomplishments Baron presented to them. However, the board said they wanted further monitoring, and that Baron didn’t do enough time, even though he had met all the requirements under his original sentencing. They gave him a thirty-month deferment. The next time he went to the parole board, they gave him an eighteen- month deferment. After that a twelve-month, then an eleven-month, and endorsed him to a minimum-security facility.
After the death of his mother, the parole denials led Baron to struggles with depression, and with each denial he struggled with despair, one time to the point where he stopped eating. Digging deep within himself once again, Baron decided not to give up and, with Beverly by his side, they fought back.
David Liners, the director of WISDOM, a Wisconsin grassroots faith-based organization that advocates and lobbies for prison reform, brought Beverly into several of its projects and eventually made her a spokesperson. She brought humanity and clarity to the subject of mass incarceration. She spoke for Baron, and elucidated injustices in the parole process for audiences. Despite her soft-spoken demeanor, Beverly is a commanding presence, and the more she spoke, the more people listened. Her charisma and effectiveness catapulted her into leadership. In 2014, Beverly spoke at the Fatherhood Initiative Summit in Milwaukee and to WUWM reporter Ann-Elise Henzl as part of her series, “I Am More Than My Record.”
While Beverly and Baron were being seen in my movie, Beverly maintained a website that instructed people how to write support letters, not only for Baron, but concerning other cases and about parole and sentencing reform in general. The social impact campaign of MILWAUKEE 53206—although not designed to specifically advocate for Baron’s release, but to raise awareness and promote discussion on the moral crisis of mass incarceration—prompted thousands of viewers to write letters about Baron’s case. Milwaukee defense lawyer Craig Mastantuono saw the movie and took on Baron’s case pro bono, which included sentencing modification work alongside the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s office for cases like Baron’s, caught between changing parole laws.
On August 16, 2018, Circuit Court Judge Mark Sanders modified Baron’s sentence to time served on the first count, a stayed seven-year sentence with five years of probation for the second count, a re-entry program provided by nonprofit the Alma Center, and community service. The move to Truth in Sentencing was seen as a new factor and was counter to the original expectations of eventual parole. Even the bank manager who had testified at Baron’s original hearing about being emotionally traumatized by the robbery was surprised to learn that, decades later, Baron was still in a cell.
The next day Baron officially became a free man.
The judge at Baron’s original hearing had given him such a hefty sentence because she felt he was in need of correction and rehabilitation. He was a very different person then. During his prison stint, Baron reformed himself in earnest and took advantage of extensive educational and vocational training, while cultivating his spirituality in Islam. At the time of Baron’s release, Judge Sanders noted of Baron’s evolution over those more than two decades that he had demonstrated “on the whole, significantly improved character.”
The 53206 ZIP code shares much in common with other US cities with high incarceration rates: hyper-segregation, deindustrialization, underfunded schools, expansive trauma, institutional racism, and all the trappings of poverty.
Flying in from New York City, I knew I’d find in Milwaukee what I’d also found parallel to those other cities with high incarceration rates: volunteer healers working tirelessly on the frontlines and faith-based organizations and nonprofits doing all they could to save lives and build a stronger community. What surprised me as I began production was the widespread interest in the film’s subject matter, and both the support of Milwaukee itself, and the documentary’s ultimate impact there.
In the last few years, the United States has been slowly waking up to the moral crisis it faces in its criminal justice system. There are plenty of resources that deeply probe the causes of mass incarceration, but there is little that explores the human toll of its devastation, especially in communities of color. Like a stone thrown into water, Baron and Beverly’s story embodies the outward ripple effects of the mass incarceration crisis in Milwaukee and for families and communities like theirs across the nation. Nevertheless, Beverly and Baron fought hard to keep their family bonds not just intact, but active, vibrant, and muscular.
There is a troubling national trend of parole boards vanishing, due to policy changes in sentencing. In Wisconsin, where Truth in Sentencing was in enacted in 1998, it virtually abolished the state’s parole board for those sentenced after the new law. For the thousands of inmates sentenced under the old law, the picture is still bleak. The parole board, which, until 2018, was comprised of a committee of members, has been reduced to one person who decides the fates of all the state’s old law parole-eligible inmates, and who, like in Baron’s case, as a matter of practice, are routinely denied despite meeting their requirements. This consolidation of power, an anemic, diluted version of what is supposed to represent justice, can be demoralizing for the incarcerated. Further, unlike Baron, their voices are still largely silent. There are no cameras, no media, and no journalists looking at their cases.
It is in Baron and Beverly’s freedom that there may be a sign of hope in Wisconsin. Baron Walker is one example of how a man transformed himself from his misguided years and youthful indiscretions to a man who is fully accountable and responsible for his past and who seeks to better himself, the lives of his family, and his community. If we are going to have significant reform in our criminal justice system, it will require a deep change in how our nation’s prisons rehabilitate and give our parole-eligible offenders (particularly those who were formerly violent) a second chance in life.
It’s stories like that of the Walkers that help to humanize incarceration. In opening up their lives as a family to the world, they show the real story behind the white paper statistics, and help those of us who want to see justice done alchemize empathy into action. With the nation grappling with a moral crisis facing the current state of incarceration in America, it is my fervent hope more people will lend their voices for justice, so that in time, change will come. ■
Keith McQuirter is an award-winning producer and director with credits in TV documentary, new media, and commercials. His documentary, MILWAUKEE 53206, won the Grand Jury Prize for Best Feature Documentary at the 2017 Urbanworld Film Festival and the National Council on Crime and Delinquency’s 2017 Media for a Just Society Award. Keith also co-produced the five-part Peabody Award winning and prime- time Emmy-nominated docu-series Brick City for the Sundance Channel. His production company, Decoder Media, is based in New York City.
Cover image of Baron Walker, age 19, courtesy the Walker family.
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