Born and raised in Milwaukee, Aaron Hicks turned 18 behind bars, was later sent to prison three months after his daughter was born and released when she was nearly 13, and must wear a GPS ankle bracelet for the rest of his life.
Those parts of his life now seem all but preordained.
In 1973, the year he was born, his mother was afflicted with multiple sclerosis and eventually became a quadriplegic, her illness forcing her out of the workforce. He never met his father. The family didn’t start in poverty, but had a house where Hicks and his elder sisters had their own bedrooms.
Gradually, the neighborhood changed and became infested with drugs and crime. His mother’s boyfriend physically abused the family and sexually abused Hicks’ mother and sisters. “I had to watch him slap her out of her wheelchair and I had to stand there and cry,” he said.
The boyfriend was also raping Hicks’ sisters. Hicks, still prepubescent, would awake with a sister sexually assaulting him. “She was doing what she knew,” he said.
By age 12, Hicks had met eyes with a man who’d just been shot. He was becoming violent and beyond his mother’s control, which led to foster care with parents he said were culturally unequipped to deal with him. He ran away and got into more trouble, meaning detention and group homes. He never stayed at one school very long, spending time in Milwaukee, Kenosha, and Madison.
“I was just angry,” he said. “I didn’t know how to cope. People just figure you’re angry. Really, you’re traumatized. I was exposed to too much, too fast.”
At 17, after fleeing a foster home in Sun Prairie, and spending time at Ethan Allen School for Boys, Mendota Mental Health Institute and a group home in Kenosha, he was arrested and convicted of second-degree sexual assault and sentenced to nine months in jail and five years’ probation. Initially, jail was awful. After a while, “it became normal,” he said.
After release, he returned to Madison, wanting to avoid the violence in Kenosha and Milwaukee where “I would eventually have to kill someone or be killed,” he said.
By 19, he had a job but was also selling cocaine so he could live a life of “fast money, fast cars and fast women.”
“You have an image you have to live up to,” he said. “It ain’t nothing I’m proud of.”
In 1999, Hicks was convicted of second-degree sexual assault of an unconscious victim and sentenced to 16 years in prison. While there, Hicks was married but apart from his wife and daughter, and lost his mother, who died at age 49.
Incarcerated, he slowly began to change. “I knew I had to do something different,” he said. “I just didn’t know what different looked like. I didn’t know what change was like.”
In 2005, at Oshkosh, he drew a bunk mate who knew his mother through her abusive boyfriend. The man’s connection to the hated abuser of his family filled Hicks with rage, and he considered killing him. But he held back, a decision Hicks said sealed a change in his heart.
He found a calling to peer support. “I found myself working with men, right in prison,” he said. “I didn’t think of it as a skill set. I was just helping people out.”
Released in November, 2010, he got housing and jobs, and began attending Voices Behind Bars, a group founded by inmates and community members that seeks to make a change in society. He met Jerome Dillard, who helped him connect with the Rev. Alex Gee of Fountain of Life Church.
Eventually, Hicks became a re-entry specialist at Nehemiah Center for Urban Leadership Development, and since 2013 has led its Man Up group, which provides peer support to incarcerated men re-entering or already living in the community, and is also director of peer support for the Focused Interruption Coalition.
“Who better to do it,” he said. “I lived it every day. One of my ultimate goals is to go into prison, to share my story, and to work with men coming out. At the end of the day, we’re all people. It’s really about being kind to one another.”