New Madison Justice Team aims to help transition from jail, prison

After spending years in the criminal justice system, Johnnie Walton wants to give others support and resources he wasn’t given when he was young.

Walton, who grew up in poverty in Chicago, spent much of his youth in juvenile detention centers for selling cocaine. But, he said, the support of people who believed in him helped him find a better life after incarceration. Walton now runs Me to We, a Madison-based organization that offers coaching services for people who have been incarcerated. 

“The goal is to work with the youth and adults that are negatively impacted by the justice system,” Walton told the Cap Times. “Because, for me, it was growing up wishing someone saved me, helped me.”

Walton hopes to provide counseling, education and job training for people in the area’s jails and prisons through his partnership with the Madison Justice Team, a newly formed organization dedicated to reforming the criminal justice system and providing resources to incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people.

“What the Madison Justice Team is doing is figuring out a way that we can … be able to directly work with the prisons, first-time offenders, nonviolent offenders,” Walton said. In the program, people “would have the opportunity to get a degree, either finish high school, go to college, start a business or just find a vocation.”

The idea for the Madison Justice Team started with Diane Ballweg, who is owner of steel manufacturer Endres Manufacturing Co., as well as a music and aviation teacher and philanthropist. Last year, Ballweg enrolled in Harvard University’s Advanced Leadership Initiative, a program for experienced community leaders to foment strategies to make an impact on a key issue facing their communities. She decided to focus on reforming the criminal justice system and providing resources for formerly incarcerated people in the Madison area after hearing stories from those who lived in poor conditions while incarcerated and who struggled to find resources after they left prison.

Since then, the all-volunteer organization has grown to include more than 80 people with representatives from more than 30 local organizations, from the Black Men Coalition of Dane County, to the Christ Presbyterian Church, to the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Odyssey Project, which provides low-income and formerly incarcerated adults access to accredited English courses.

The Madison Justice Team is composed of six committees, each with a specific focus: education in prison and beyond, amenities in the new county jail building, job training and employment upon release from prison, recruitment and social engagement, housing security for formerly incarcerated people and reforming laws related to jail, bail and prison protocols. Members of the committees represent the various organizations who specialize in their specific issues, and they meet with the rest of the team to discuss their initiatives.

For example, the Madison Justice Team is advocating for reforms that allow people to have their bail processed and set within 24 hours of their arrest. Currently, Ballweg said, people are often held in jail for several days simply because the judges do not work on weekends.

“They don’t work on Friday, Saturday or Sunday at all,” Ballweg said. “If you’re arrested on a Thursday evening or if you’re arrested on a Friday morning, you automatically are thrown in jail until Monday even though you might not even be guilty — you might just be a suspect.”

The Madison Justice Team was built to allow the various partnered advocates and organizations to work together on common goals, according to Harry Haney, a member. Haney previously worked in supply chain operations for Kraft Foods and later Loyola University, and joined the Madison Justice Team to help organize the group and develop strategies alongside Ballweg.

“One of the challenges with this work is that there’s an awful lot of organizations out there doing really good things, but it’s all pretty disconnected,” Haney said. “We need to do a better job of working together.”

Dane County Jail walkthrough raises eyebrows

In the fall of 2022, Ballweg scheduled walkthroughs of the Dane County Jail with members of the Madison Justice Team. What they found made Ballweg concerned that jail residents are not given adequate resources to help them address mental health issues, finish their education or learn skills that could help them find a job after re-entering society.

Close-up of Diane Endres Ballweg (copy)

Philanthropist and business owner Diane Ballweg is among about 80 people involved in a new group called the Madison Justice Team, dedicated to helping people who are incarcerated or formerly incarcerated successfully re-enter society.

The current jail offers very little space for adult residents who need to continue their schooling to do so, and many residents don’t have transportation, stable housing or employment options to return to after they leave, according to Ballweg. 

The county plans to close the current jail, built in the 1950s at the City-County Building, and replace it with a new six-story jail tower on West Doty Street. The new jail, estimated to be completed in 2026, will be designed to include space for counseling and education programs, provide improved medical and mental health housing for residents and “greatly reduce” the use of solitary confinement, according to the Dane County Sheriff’s Office

In May, the jail also opened the Paul Rusk Resource Desk to help people who are released find resources after re-entering into society, offering clothing and hygiene products as well as information about where to find food, housing, job opportunities and substance abuse treatment.

Ballweg has been in contact with Dane County Sheriff Kalvin Barrett about potential reforms, but the Madison Justice Team has not yet spoken with members of the County Board or the Madison City Council. She said the resource desk and the expanded resources proposed in the new jail’s plans are a welcome first step, but more has to be done to ensure residents get the support they need to re-enter the community and not end up back in jail. 

“We are not making these changes happen, but we talk to people enough that they know we have this big group together, and they’re starting to see (that) there’s agencies with the Justice Team that are advocating for this,” Ballweg said. “So I think they’re starting to adjust, just from hearing words and comments from us.”

Madison Justice Team member Amber Scarborough, who works at a pharmacy and is helping to create the team’s website, went to one of the walkthroughs of the jail. She said she would like more efforts to provide people who leave the jail with prescription medication for mental health treatment, something that residents often run out of soon after they’re released. She’s working on a program to make sure residents receive longer-lasting prescriptions.

“They might have three to five days on a medication for their prescription or maybe even a week to two weeks,” Scarborough said. “But if you are leaving jail and you need this medication — let’s say, for mental health reasons — you’re going to need a longer prescription.”

What’s next for the Madison Justice Team

The Justice Team will meet in September to create a formal strategy for projects and initiatives in the short term. Those efforts will focus primarily on reforming the jail and bail-related laws as well as setting up more resources for formerly incarcerated people, according to Ballweg.

Ballweg hopes the Madison Justice Team can help 100 formerly incarcerated people find employment by the end of the year with the help of partner organizations like the Black Men Coalition. 

“In some cases, they need a little more coaching, a little more support services — at least in the beginning — than maybe some others might,” said Haney. “But in the end, what you get is an incredibly dedicated person who is as good or better than anybody else on your team.”

The Madison Justice Team is also looking for ways to provide more services to people currently in local jails and prisons. Though these plans are still in early planning stages, Walton said the team wants to send volunteers to jails and prisons to offer residents expanded services for finishing their education or finding a vocation.

For Walton, the criminal justice system still restricts his ability to directly work with people in jails and prisons. The Dane County Jail conducts background checks on anyone who looks to do work within the jails, and prior felony convictions are often grounds to partially restrict access to the jail, according to Dane County Sheriff’s Office administrative assistant Kari Carey.

“Even working with the Justice Team, I can share so many ideas of steps to take, but I won’t be able to participate until my past is corrected, until I either get a pardon or some type of approval to work with the jails. I want to go to the youth … and I want to work with the youth there,” he said. 

Walton said he is working on receiving a pardon in Illinois, which will allow him greater freedom to work with people who are incarcerated, especially youths.

“A lot of them are still dreaming,” Walton said. “They haven’t stopped dreaming, and I want to get there before the dreaming stops.” 


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