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.”