David Presberry was released from prison three times by the Wisconsin Department of Corrections, and each time was handed a Madison Metro bus ticket that he used to ride from his parole agent’s office on Odana Road to the Men’s Drop-In Shelter in downtown Madison, he says.

“I pretty much didn’t have a choice, there wasn’t anywhere else to stay,” Presberry, 31, said during a recent interview at a downtown Madison coffee shop.

Presberry is among a dozen homeless people who have been sleeping on the steps of the City-County Building in recent weeks, one sign of the growing visibility of homelessness in downtown Madison. His story adds to a growing body of testimony on the frequency with which criminal offenders end up homeless on the streets in Madison.

A recent rash of violent incidents at the top of State Street where homeless people traditionally have congregated has shaken the proprietors of local business and prompted police to marshal their resources. The circumstances also have Mayor Paul Soglin, frustrated for years by the migration of homeless people to Madison and the release of offenders to the city, demanding that the state prison system and nearby communities stop releasing criminal offenders into Madison. Soglin also is alarmed in particular at the number of sex offenders in Madison and was taped scrolling through an online list of offenders listed as living at the Men’s Shelter for a recent TV news report.  

“I’m concerned about the placement of offenders in disproportionate numbers into Dane County,” Soglin said in a phone interview Wednesday. “I believe that if we are going to properly serve the homeless, we cannot receive offenders who were released to other communities and then placed in Madison.”

Soglin is not alone in his concerns. The mayor of San Francisco this week sued the state of Nevada, charging it with dumping indigent mental patients in California cities where they routinely ended up homeless.

Wisconsin Corrections officials met with him last week, Soglin said, and said they would look into his concerns. The group plans to meet again in 30 days

Originally from Rockford, Ill., Presberry attended UW-Madison where he served on Associated Students of Madison, the student council. He also was a member of the Madison Equal Opportunities Commission from 2001-2003.

Presberry's criminal record on the state’s court access website shows he was convicted in Dane County for a series of burglaries which he attributes to a drug habit. He was sent to prison – and back again, twice -- after he violated terms of probation and release. Before he was released from prison the first time, in November of 2010, Presberry said that corrections officials, citing his conviction for a sex offense as a juvenile in Illinois, released him under the more stringent supervision required for sex offenders.

Being classified as a sex offender makes it even harder to get a foothold after release from prison than it is for other offenders, Presberry said. Not only is there little housing for sex offenders provided through the Department of Corrections, offenders may not live near schools, parks and other places where children congregate as a condition of their release from prison, he said. Sex offenders also are prohibited by Corrections rules from taking some jobs, like those that require being on the internet, he adds.

Department of Corrections director of public affairs Joy Staab didn’t answer a question in an email last week about the number of beds available to sex offenders, but said in her written response that “DOC contracts for 125 beds at halfway houses, transitional living placements and emergency housing facilities throughout Dane County for all people who are on supervision.”

Staab said last week that Corrections did not keep a record of the number of sex offenders released to Dane County in the past three years. However, she did say that she could provide a list of sex offenders currently living in Dane County, the number giving the Men’s Drop-In Shelter in Madison as a current residence and the number of offenders in Dane County who are on probation, parole or extended supervision. This week, Staab said she did not have those records and instead referred to the department’s website.

The Capital Times also asked Corrections for statistics on the number of offenders of all types released to Dane County in exception to the agency’s policy of releasing offenders to the county where they were convicted. There has been no response to that inquiry yet.

Presberry said there are so many offenders at the Men’s Shelter that probation and parole officers routinely walk through to check up on those who are supposed to be there, something Staab confirmed is done regularly. Others arrive at the shelter wearing the ankle bracelets that Corrections uses to track their location, Presberry says.

Steve Schooler, executive director of Porchlight Inc., which operates the Men’s Shelter, has told Corrections that the shelter system shouldn’t figure into the state’s discharge plan.

Linda Ketcham, executive director of Madison-area Urban Ministry, a nonprofit agency that assists criminal offenders returning to the community, estimates that 75 to 80 percent of people her agency assists in its offender “re-entry” programs are homeless. “The shelter system is the only option“ for many of them, she said.

Ketcham said her agency had more luck in finding housing for offenders before the housing market collapsed several years ago, pushing the rental unit vacancy rate in Madison down to about 2.5 percent, meaning landlords have their pick of tenants. A 2011 state law wiping out protections for criminal offenders in Madison tenant law also made it harder for them to find housing, she said.

MUM doesn’t track where offenders are from or the county in which they were convicted, Ketcham said. But she gets letters from offenders from around the state, particularly rural areas, who are trying to get Corrections to release them into Madison, she said.

“So many rural communities don’t have shelters and (offenders) are not able to find housing,” Ketcham said. “They need substance abuse treatment, and their chances are better for employment with the comparatively lower unemployment rate here.”

Ketcham said when released, offenders are attracted to Dane County because “they’re looking for an area with more resources available, and I can’t blame them.” And people coming out of the prison system don’t control where services are available, she points out. “The responsibility should lie with the community they’re from or are being released to” under the Corrections rule to place offenders in the county where they were convicted.

Ketcham doesn’t blame the Department of Corrections for the state of affairs confronting criminal ex-offenders and local communities. The DOC is “just the messenger for legislative policies putting money into prison beds instead of community-based programming,” she said.

Homeless offenders have been shuttled into the shelter system for some time in Madison, she said.

“As the issue of homelessness is lifted up, people are finding that this is part of the community that is homeless,” she said.

Presberry completed his sentence earlier this year and is no longer on supervision. He works temporary jobs but isn’t employed right now, he said. He’s been sleeping on the street since reaching the maximum of 60 days allowed at the shelter this year in July. He criticizes the Department of Corrections for not doing more to help offenders get ready to live on the outside when they are released.

“There are thousands of cases, nonviolent offenders, that they are just warehousing until they get released,” he said, even though he admits he’s been his own worst enemy, “shooting myself in the foot” with drug use. He said he’s burned a lot of bridges with family, but is still often stunned at where he finds himself.

“I have a college degree, I’m living in Madison for 10 years, I’ve been with the movers and shakers, and I’m on the street,” he said. “If you told me when I was 22, that I’d be homeless, I’d have laughed in your face. I can’t tell where I’ll be at 35.”

He realizes that a lot of people may be unsympathetic with his plight.

“I understand that. A lot of people think it’s a personal choice, but in some ways it’s not,” he said. “Ironically, using (drugs) helps you cope with the situation you’re in. But it’s fleeting.”

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(9) comments


It's been something like 20 years now since a "get tough on crime" wave swept thru the Legislature, and they implemented "truth in sentencing", which said that you couldn't earn "good time" during your stay in prison by keeping your nose clean and following the rules. (Lemme tell ya, the prison guards absolutely hated that, because "good time" was one of the few inducements they had to hold out to inmates in return for their cooperation.) Under the new provisions, if you were sentenced to 20 years, you served 20 years, all 7305 days of it.

And when you got out, guess what? You'd paid your debt to society, so you didn't have parole available to you, you were 100% free — and on your own.

Another part of the thinking at the time was to have a fixed schedule of sentences, so judges in Milwaukee County would be handing out the same hard time for the same crime as judges in Dane County, Brown County, Douglas County, etc. This meant, of course, that there was no "wiggle room" left for judicial discretion under extenuating circumstances. The Legislature clearly knew best! The judges were just supposed to be rubber-stamp functionaries.

The next step in the initial plan was supposed to be a systematic review of the length of prison sentences, with a view toward shortening them, since it was widely recognized that the existing sentencing structure contemplated that most felons wouldn't be serving their full time. That next step never occurred. The old, draconian sentence lengths were left in place, and the same "tough on crime" attitude that warehoused prisoners for ever-longer stretches of their lives was also responsible for cutting back on social programs that might have helped them get an education, learn a trade, ease their way back into society, and so on.

Did this cost money? Oh, yeah! Tons and tons of it. Did the Legislature care? Not so's you can tell. Oh, they resent money spent on things like education and the environment, but they're perfectly happy to fund the laffably named Department of "Corrections" to the tune of more bux than they devote to the University of Wisconsin.

This is beyond disgraceful. It's worthy of Shakespearean tragedy.

David Presberry
David Presberry

Truth in Sentencing came into effect 1/1/2000. Unfortunately, under TIS you're sentenced to two terms, an 'in' amount (prison) and an 'out' amount (basically parole, which was renamed extended supervision). So, there isn't one sentence like there was under parole. The judge MUST sentence you to extended supervision, and you can't get off early. So, if you got five years on ES, and you screw up in the fourth, you're liable to do ALL FIVE YEARS over again in the pen! So, a five-year sentence can turn into a TEN year one!

You are correct that there is not much of an incentive to do well in prison because the state doesn't offer any time cuts, and the one it does offer isn't really a cut at all (because the time you'd save in prison goes on ES, so the total length of the sentence doesn't change). Also, fewer than a quarter of the inmates who apply for the cut (ss. 973.195) get it.

Yeah, it's sad that we spend more on DOC than the UW. Walker and the GOP were very good at playing Milwaukee and Madison against the rest of the state...you saw that in Walker's recall election ads. As long as attitudes like that prevail, there will be no incentive to change the system because voters see prisons and crimes as urban issues and not issues that effect them directly (even though it's incredibly expensive). Also, most prisons are in rural areas, so being tough on crime eventually leads to jobs in a lot of these places that would be destitute without them (looking at you, Stanley, WI). The whole thing reeks of politics, cynical politics at that, never mind that people's lives are at stake. I'm just glad I'm off supervision and I don't have to deal with it anymore. But people need to know the crazy things that DOC does.

Remember, the Democrats tried to reform this in their state budget in 2009...tried to have their cake (some reform, early release, Risk Reduction sentences, etc.) and eat it too (leaving TIS in place). Republicans immediately attacked it as soft-on-crime, didn't give it time to work, and it was repealed soon after Walker took office. Notice that incarceration rates are going up again, while under Doyle's last two years they went down slightly.

Until the state legislature begins investing in community corrections, we're going to see problems like this continue. It shouldn't be the responsibilty of private social service agencies to take care of DOC supervisees. If the DOC took care of its own, that would free up space in the shelter, which would allow people who are currently sleeping on the streets to be housed/sheltered. Also, it shouldn't be tolerated that DOC is shipping supervisees here from other cities...sex offender housing laws probably have a lot to do with this (one of those unintended effects!).

DOC must be held accountable for the role they play in Madison's homeless situation. Of course, personal responsibility plays a part as well...I know I'm not perfect, but if a person is trying to improve their lot, then he or she should be given a hand up, not bureaucratic BS to deal with.


Build it and they will come - we have been telling you this for years - Oh what a surprise! and Presberry - no - don't feel sorry for you at all - I would bet you didn't pay full freight like my children did and I did to go to the UW - and you didn't take advantage of that education and now you expect us to help you again - forget it - got back to Rockford and figure it out yourself. It is not my fault or those of the state of WI that you are a failure and deadbeat - it is yours - all yours

Pat Schneider
Pat Schneider

Joe: If not at the library, where is the place to offer services to homeless people when there is no centralized place for them to be in the daytime? The city and county have been talking about a day resource center, but so far it hasn't happened.


Pat: Thanks for jumping in to register your disapproval of Joe's comment about the "library" that is actually being tuned up to be a homeless shelter, can't figure out why that would be controversial. It's nice to see that TCT "news" reporters are so invested in one side of an issue that they couldn't possibly be biased in how they deliver us a story. At least we don't have to guess where you're coming from.

Pat Schneider
Pat Schneider

jimri: I posed the question "if not the library, where?" in hopes of starting a conversation about how -- and if -- the city should provide services. I don't disapprove of Joe's question, I know it is controversial. That's one reason I spoke recently with the library director about balancing use of the library by that group and its use by others. http://ow.ly/oQLcy Like he says, homeless people have a legal right to use the library like anyone else. Since they come in there to get warm, does it make sense to use that as an opportunity to offer connections for them to move toward self-sufficiency?


i think the bigger question is are the homeless that come to the library seeking self-sufficiency?

"Homeless" is an unbelievably complicated issue because that population is not all in search of the same things.

I thought this was a good piece about how difficult re-establishing yourself after crime is so difficult...jobs, leases, etc...everything he does will be extremely difficult because of the easy access people have to his criminal history...there are career criminals who are that way because they are bad people...and then there are career criminals because they have realized the hopelessness of ever getting away from their past.


I appreciate our community's generosity in providing services to our homeless citizens. But, I don't appreciate other communities and DOC exploiting Madison by dumping their homeless here, increasing the need for support of home.ess people beyond our capacity to provide.

And soon, our gleaming new library will become a social service delivery agent for homeless people still supervised by DOC. i appreciate that the library embraces the need to make room for homeless people. But, we should NOT be providing library space for homeless people to meet with DOC and social services agencies.


Here is part of the problem. The people in the Dane County Jail get no access to career counseling, no access to drug counseling, and no access to people who could talk to them about furthering their education. Most of these people have no support systems other than. people that will bring them more trouble. What do you think will happen to these prisoners when they are released?

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