“You can go do your interview with Mario,” John Miller told his wife Joy, “I can fold the rest of these tamales and start cooking.”
I’ve been following John for the past few weeks as part of a documentary project I’m working on. He and his family have opened their home to me, let me eat me with them, and answered my questions as I filmed them.
I met John on October 12 at the Capitol during a hearing for Assembly Bill 286. AB 286 was a piece of legislation proposed by republican representatives which aimed to effectively end discrimination protection for working felons or convicts seeking employment. Under current law, employers cannot discriminate on the basis of a conviction record unless the nature of the crime directly relates to the job. But to some lawmakers, who want to demonstrate that Wisconsin is open for business, protecting employers from lawsuits trumps felons’ rights.
That day in the capitol I listened to Miller plead with representatives. “Please…please don’t do this,” he said. Reps listened politely, but I noted a certain condescension in some of their responses:
“We feel very strongly. This is the way to go,” said Rep. Chris Kapenga, R-Delafield. “And if we can continue moving that scale of ‘hey this is a good place to do business,’ that is going to directly impact you guys and bring a lot more opportunity and that’s why we’re doing this. Because we care about you guys and we care about people. And we want to bring those jobs here.”
I interviewed John the day after the hearing and was surprised at how positive and energetic he remained. But if John was optimistic, I was anything but. I’m also a felon. It’s part of what draws me to stories like John’s. To me, this was just another piece of evidence that felons are seen as community pariahs–disposable liabilities.
I noticed that John didn’t seem to have time to worry about the possible effects of anti-felon legislation. He was busy enough trying to live, get back on his feet, help his family and others around him. There was a blind tenacity that John embodied.
But while I admired his perspective, I almost pitied him. Here was this well-meaning guy, trying his best, but no amount of energy or will power could overcome the odds stacked against him.
“OK, I’m ready,” said Joy.
I sat across from John’s wife, adjusted my tripod, plugged in the wireless mic, and reminded her to include part of my questions in her answers.
“I met John when I was living in Minnesota. I was cutting hair at a strip mall, and John kept coming by and talking to me. I was actually kind of scared of him. He was so hyper, and I was quiet and reserved. He used to call me a country girl. I thought he was a stalker. But he kept trying, and one day he brought me flowers. I guess the rest is history. It took him 6 months, but he finally got a date.”
Joy didn’t know it back then, but John was on the run from the law. He had walked away from a Wisconsin halfway house, where the Dept. of Corrections had ordered him to serve part of a previous sentence for robbery. While living at the house, he had a fight with his girlfriend and he fled the state. John was facing assault and escape charges in Milwaukee.
“They were trailing John for a long time, and when they finally caught him they extradited him to Wisconsin. When he stood in front of a judge for sentencing, I took a Greyhound to Milwaukee, hoping they’d let him out on bail and I could see him again. They didn’t let him out, and I found out he was facing 15 years in prison.”
“At the hearing, I remember John’s attorney took me aside and told me that John was a career criminal–that I didn’t want to be with someone like that. I just broke down in tears. I thought, ‘you’re his attorney. How can you tell me this?’ I ended up sleeping on a bus station bench that night, waiting for the morning bus back to Minnesota,” said Joy.
Joy supported John when he was sentenced to 15 years, and she stayed with him as he served 14 of those years in a Wisconsin prison. She visited him some weekends, wrote him letters, put money on his books so he could buy commissary, and paid for 4-dollar-a-minute phone cards.
She said she maintained the relationship by confiding in John via mail. “I’d tell him everything that was happening, tell him about problems at home and with the family, and I’d ask his advice.”
But there was one piece of news that Joy kept to herself. In 2008, Joy had a heart attack. When she went to the emergency room, and doctors took x-rays, they saw abnormalities on one lung. She was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
“I didn’t want to tell John,” said Joy. “I wanted him to focus on staying positive and getting ready to get out of prison.”
Today, Joy’s cancer is in remission. She’s grown her hair back, but says she still doesn’t like to see herself in pictures.
“What’s the one thing you respect most about John?” I ask.
“His determination,” she says. “John knows what he wants. He never gives up. He never stops.”
AB 286 passed the assembly. It became SB 207, and passed the senate, too. Just as I suspected, the bill was on its way to becoming law. Yet, last week, in one of the most exhaustive legislative sessions in state history, SB 207 was not brought to the floor for a vote. Maybe advocates’ voices caused certain lawmakers to reconsider the stances. Maybe the stories of people like John took root in their minds. And maybe, just this once, time was on the felons’ side.
I shut off my camera, and sat down at the table with John and his family. My fiancée had come too, and we all talked about documentaries, prison, love and relationships.
I realized something about John that night. Until this point, I had appreciated John’s attitude. I saw that he clung to the faith that if he kept working, kept moving, everything would work out. But that faith is something I had lost. Maybe I had kicked out of me by the Department of Corrections.
But for all my cynicism, John’s path has remained constant. Regardless of the SB 207 decision, his actions would be based in what’s worked for him since he walked out of prison in 2010.
“John, why don’t you pray?” said Joy.
“Dear Father,” said John, “thank you for this food that you have given us, and please bless it to our bodies. Thank you for our guests tonight, and thank you for keeping our family safe today. We pray this in your name. Amen.”