Tyrone Williams woke up when he was 22.
His cellmate in prison had heard it was his birthday and asked, over and over, how old he was. Williams was certain he was turning 16.
When his cellmate got frustrated, Williams paused and thought of his birth date. He counted in his head, then on his hands. He was 22.
He lay on his bed and pulled the sheets over his head. He couldn’t understand how he didn’t know his age. The way Williams describes it, he went to sleep for nearly seven years, starting the moment a Milwaukee County judge banged the gavel after handing down a 33-year sentence to a 16-year-old boy.
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“All I know is I will never go to sleep on my life again,” said Williams, now 34.
“No matter what it is, no matter how hard it is, let me see it all,” he said. “That was the beginning for me.”
In 1996, Williams became the first 15-year-old in Milwaukee County waived into adult court for armed robbery. He served 16 1/2 years behind bars before he was paroled in 2012.
In the years since his release, Williams has worked at a retail-marketing company, delivered newspapers and opened a recording studio. He got married, and he and his wife, Angela, are turning their attention to their nonprofit, which provides mini-grants to help families meet basic needs and employs teens in the summer.
His experience offers a glimpse into life for kids who are treated as adults in the criminal justice system. It comes as national advocates for juvenile justice reform are focused on Wisconsin, watching as the two girls charged in the Slender Man stabbing remain in adult court and other teens face rare federal prosecutions in bank robbery and car-jacking cases.
Everyone in court the day Williams was sentenced agreed on one thing: He had a horrible childhood.
Williams and his five siblings bounced from house to house, sometimes in foster care and sometimes in the care of their drug-addicted mother or alcoholic grandmother, according to court documents.
His mother was once charged with child neglect after police found all five children alone in a roach-infested apartment without heat, hot water or a working stove.
Williams told the writer of a presentence report about how his grandmother beat him with extension cords, coat hangers, a broom and a toilet plunger. The report described his father as “little more than a sperm donor” who burned his son with cigarettes.
“It wasn’t life,” Williams says now of his childhood. “Young people deserve to have life, not just the existence of life but actual life.”
At age 12, he stole $4.84 worth of doughnuts from a gas station store. When he was stopped by a clerk, he pulled a pistol out of his pants but didn’t fire it. He had taken the gun from his grandmother’s house. He told police, when they arrived, he stole the doughnuts because there wasn’t any food at home.
He later was arrested on charges of criminal damage to property and carrying a gun. His sentences often involved living at group homes around Milwaukee.
Music was the one bright spot. In 1994, he was picked by an Urban League-sponsored program at Parkman Middle School to take part in a five-day youth conference during which he and 2,000 other students performed songs.
Two years later, he was one of nine young people from the area picked by Southwest Key Programs — which administered his court-mandated curfew program — to fly to Houston and sing at a benefit honoring Olympic gold medal winner Carl Lewis.
Less than a week after he returned, Williams was arrested for a string of armed robberies.
Over a period of three days in 1996, Williams lashed out.
His rage, he said, stemmed from hearing his younger brother describe abuse at the hands of a foster father.
He didn’t care what happened to himself. The group homes he’d be sent to were better than any of the other homes he knew.
“I hated my life that much,” he said. “Incarceration became a vacation from my life.”
Williams stole a car at gunpoint from a grocery store customer. He carjacked two women and forced both to drive to an ATM and withdraw money. His last crime was an attempted carjacking that failed when he didn’t know how to drive a stick shift.
He was waived into adult court. Prosecutor Marcella DePeters acknowledged it had been then-District Attorney Michael McCann’s policy not to waive anyone until age 17, but Williams’ arrest came at the same time as a host of changes to the state’s juvenile laws.
In the mid-1990s, the law changed so all 17-year-olds were placed in adult court for any offense. The changes also lowered the waiver age to 15 for any offense, and children as young as 10 could be tried in adult court if they committed certain crimes, such as first-degree homicide.
“Milwaukee had always been very reluctant to waive kids into adult court,” said Jim Moeser, deputy director of the nonprofit Wisconsin Council on Children and Families and a longtime juvenile justice professional. “That was the era that led to the change in laws in Wisconsin and a number of others states because there had been a rise in serious juvenile crime in the late ’80s and ’90s that peaked around 1994.”
In the last decade, the number of juvenile cases transferred to adult court statewide has steadily declined from about 375 to less than 200. It coincided with a nearly 50 percent decline in juvenile arrests and a growing consensus of the benefits of keeping children in the juvenile system, Moeser said.
Being tried as an adult, Williams faced decades in prison instead of several years in a state youth facility. He didn’t deny any of his actions and pleaded guilty. At his sentencing, it wasn’t a matter of if he was going to prison, but rather for how long.
His lawyer, Robin Shellow, detailed his background for the court, including her role in it.
Shellow had represented his mother years earlier in Children’s Court and helped her family retain custody when child protective petitions had been opened against her.
Soon after she represented Williams’ mother, crack cocaine flooded the streets of Milwaukee, ensnaring his mother and others in crippling addition.
Shellow presented Williams’ background information as mitigating factors — a strategy she used for years with her clients, but especially those who were juveniles.
“I tried to tell the story of Milwaukee’s children,” she said in a recent interview.
Shellow gained national attention in the early 1990s when she tried to use a novel insanity defense, arguing a girl charged with homicide was not responsible for her actions because she suffered from “cultural” or “urban psychosis,” a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder caused by the violence of her childhood. The defense was rejected but she could enter that information at sentencing.
In some ways, her idea, once considered fringe, has gone mainstream. Criminal justice and child welfare officials nationwide now are considering the lasting effects of childhood trauma when creating policy and programs.
“We know that dysfunctional families do not always produce people who are going to commit themselves to a lifetime of violent crime,” Police Chief Edward Flynn said earlier this year, when he called for Congress to fund home visiting programs for at-risk mothers.
“But we know those who are the most highly violent individuals almost inevitably come from seriously damaged family backgrounds.”
During an interview, Shellow asked her associates to bring up Williams’ file from storage. As she talked about that time in her career — when she tried desperately to keep her clients in Children’s Court — she called down and ask for file after file, each of a child from an abusive home who committed an act of violence.
“Their stories are worth remembering,” Shellow said. “They lived through horrible times. … When adults fail kids, we have to take responsibility for it.”
Williams says he was built for prison because of his grandmother.
“I think I only learned one thing from her in this life, that is: You do not cry when you have to pay for what you do,” he said.
Williams was sent to Columbia Correctional in Portage. He often tried to get sent to solitary confinement.
“I went to prison to get away from my life; in prison I went to the hole to get away,” he said.
In January 2000, Williams was one of nearly 1,000 inmates sent to a private prison in Oklahoma because of overcrowding in Wisconsin.
He said he became an “enforcer” at North Fork private prison in Sayre, Okla.
“I grew up getting beat, so I like hitting and being hit,” he said. “The level of violence of Oklahoma — it’s not Wisconsin, it’s not federal — it was a whole other level of incarceration.”
Newspaper stories from the time detail inmate fights, prison lock-downs and guards assaulting inmates. In 2003, the Wisconsin Department of Corrections moved inmates at Sayre to another private prison in Watonga, Okla., because of exorbitant charges for collect calls placed by prisoners to out-of-state relatives and friends.
It was in Oklahoma, Williams said, that he woke up from his “sleep.” He wrote a book and started writing music again. He dabbled in all genres, from rock to rap to country. He was drawn to ballads, which he attributes to his favorite group, Boyz II Men.
He also became a Christian after taking part in a faith-based prison program. He originally enrolled because they were paid $60 a month to live in a Christian housing unit, where he lived separately from other inmates and studied the Bible. By the end of the program, he left with a newfound faith.
Soon after, Wisconsin ended its contract with the private prison and brought the inmates back to in-state facilities.
At first, Williams struggled with inmates who only knew his prior reputation. When he explained he was a Christian, he got threats but gradually people accepted it. He taught himself Spanish, French, Italian and German, and translated for Spanish-speaking inmates.
By then, he said, he understood the “logic of prison.”
“In my opinion, it has nothing to do with crime,” Williams said. “It has everything to do with the wave.”
“It always comes (from) politics,” he continued. “They lock the doors when there’s a race to be won because everyone has to be tough on crime, but then you get the wave, where we have to flood so many people out of here. I saw it too many times not to believe the truth in it.”
He was denied parole two times before catching a wave out in 2012.
Movies and his godfather brought Williams and his wife, Angela, together.
After his godfather introduced them, Williams borrowed DVDs from her vast collection. When he asked her on a date, Angela, now 43, hesitated because of their age difference and because her children — a daughter, now 23, and two sons, 23 and 20 — worried about Williams’ history.
Angela understood the complexities of going to prison at a young age. When she was growing up, her 14-year-old brother was tried as an adult for manslaughter and sentenced to 25 years.
When the couple met, Williams was working at a one-stop retail marketing company — he got the job while doing work release in prison and the boss asked him to stay on — and had three newspaper delivery routes.
Angela worked at a biotech research firm before she and Williams turned their full attention to starting N3w World Foundation, fulfilling both of their longtime dreams of working with kids.
The foundation distributes two $100 grants each month to women who need help with their energy bill or other basic needs. The foundation primarily raises money with benefit concerts. This summer, Williams hired about 10 teens to do marketing and outreach to promote concerts and other programs, including ice cream socials for kids and coffee hours for adults.
His long-term goal is to raise enough money to open a house for women and children who need temporary shelter.
When he thinks back to his case, Williams is struck by the lack of gradual sanctions. He had never been sent to a youth correctional facility, only group homes, and he lost that option when he was waived into adult court.
“I believe that no one, in my personal opinion, should have that much of their life taken,” Williams said. “Because I’m a Christian, I believe there has to be a balance, a penance.”
When people think of those in the criminal justice system, they oversimplify, he said.
“We would rather judge because it’s so easy to say bad, good, bad, good,” Williams said, snapping his fingers for emphasis.
“It’s so easy to do that rather than find out what is actually going on.”