Project Milwaukee
1:00 am
Mon May 5, 2014

Community Leaders Hope Job Training in Prison Will Bring Down The Numbers

Inmates take the forklifting exam at the House of Correction.
Inmates take the forklifting exam at the House of Correction.
Credit Marti Mikkelson

In recent years, there’s been a push here to provide more education and job training opportunities while behind bars.

From the outside, the House of Correction in Franklin has the look of a prison. Gray walls line the sprawling complex; coiled razor wire tops its chain link fences.

Inside, the halls are quiet until you get to the back of the building. You begin to hear the sounds of a huge printing machine. The print shop at the HOC produces items for local governments and non-profit agencies. Its inmates learn and then perform the work. Eddie Carter is in training.

“I chose to do this so when I get out, I don’t have to go back to what I was doing before," Carter says. "I got three babies and I don’t want my kids to grow up and see daddy like this."

Carter is 23 years old and serving six months for illegally possessing a gun. He says he spent much of his youth peddling drugs, so he jumped at the chance in prison to learn a legitimate job.

“At one point, I was doing whatever I needed to, to get money," Carter says. "This way, I can do it the right way, give me a good job and be the father and the man of the household I should have been a long time ago."

Carter will be released in September. He hopes before then, a silk screening machine will arrive at the shop, so he can learn to print on t-shirts.

Michael Wergin is the shop instructor. He says about a dozen inmates come in every weekday, to learn to use the machines. Wergin says the job market looks decent.

“Quad Graphics is always hiring quite a few people. It gives them a basic start up, what the whole printing field is about,” Wergin says.

It wasn’t always this lively at the House of Correction. For decades, it offered inmates basic education courses along with alcohol and drug counseling. That changed in January, when the center rolled out a host of programs designed to give inmates hands-on job training as well as practical skills.

Program Director Denise Taylor says training ranges from culinary classes to operating a forklift, and soft skills include how to prepare a resume and interview for a job. She says, while inmates do not have to participate, many are standing in line.

“We have more people volunteering than we have space for, especially with the forklift class," Taylor says. "I have a pile on my desk of people wanting to get forklift certified, because they know that’s where the jobs are."

Taylor says the HOC has just one forklift, so only five inmates at a time can take the three-week course. The trend within Wisconsin’s prison system is to offer more job training programs.

Republican Rep. Garey Bies of Sister Bay is chair of the Assembly Corrections committee. He says while education has always been a part of prison life, the mindset of state leaders began changing several years ago.

“The prison population had risen to a point where it’s very expensive," Bies says. "We’re putting people on the street that don’t have any sustainable way of making a living and that brings them right back into the system.”

Bies says the quality of programming has also improved, especially in medium-security prisons. Each emphasizes a specific line of work. For instance, the Oakhill Correctional Institution in Dane County offers horticulture training. Bies says the system assesses inmates, as soon as they arrive.

“They put together a plan to get a person to a sustainable level by the time they are due for release and that includes bringing up their education level and giving them some training in different skills that they may have an aptitude for,” Bies says.

Bies served on former Governor Jim Doyle’s Commission on Reducing Racial Disparities in the Wisconsin Justice System in 2007. The panel’s key recommendation was for the Department of Corrections to come up with a plan for an inmate’s re-entry into the community, on the day the person enters prison.

One group that helps ease the final transition is Project Return of Milwaukee. Executive director Wendell Hruska applauds the state’s change of direction but says it alone, will not reduce Wisconsin’s high rate of incarcerating black men.

“Are vocational programs in the institutions going to solve it, no, but they’re a good step,” Hruska says.

Hruska says inmates tend to train on outdated equipment, so he hopes the state spends money on upgrades, so ex-offenders can better compete for jobs.

Nichole Yunk Todd works for the non-profit group Wisconsin Community Services. It helps place inmates leaving the House of Correction in Franklin. She says about half of those she mentors, land jobs.

“50 percent may not sound very impressive, but when you look at the long list of things that we have to help them overcome, 50 percent starts to look better and better,” Todd says.

Todd also recommends the state invest more money in programs for inmates. She says it would help shorten their waiting lists.