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Building careers while incarcerated

February 1, 2022
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Wisconsin’s Workforce Innovation Grant will bring new educational opportunities, workforce support to incarcerated individuals

MADISON, WI. JAN. 31, 2022 – Just like so many other graduation speakers, Martin Medina urged his fellow graduates to focus on their futures as they were awarded associate’s degrees through Milwaukee Area Technical College earlier this month.

“Though change is inevitable, positive change is what matters and that is what we represent today,” Medina said. “We make no excuse for the past, just equal opportunity for the future.”

Medina was speaking to his fellow graduates from the Redgranite Correctional Institution. The 25 men and women receiving their degrees that day all earned them while incarcerated.

Educational programs, like the one Medina and his fellow graduates took part in, are going to be expanding in Wisconsin’s prisons, thanks in part to the state’s Workforce Innovation Grant.

“The future of Wisconsin’s workforce depends on us helping everyone – that includes our prison inmates – gain the skills they need to build fulfilling careers,” said Missy Hughes, Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC) secretary and CEO. “The state’s Workforce Innovation Grant is going to allow the UW System to help more incarcerated individuals earn degrees and a chance to take their lives in new directions.”

In December, Gov. Tony Evers announced the first round of Workforce Innovation Grants awarding up to $59.5 million to 12 collaborative programs working to solve Wisconsin’s workforce challenges. The grants are paid for by $100 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds, with a second round of grants expected to be announced later this year.

The University of Wisconsin Prison Education Initiative was awarded up to $5.7 million in grant funding to work with the Department of Corrections to teach employable skills to students while incarcerated and support them through program completion and career placement upon release.

“I want to break the back of recidivism because I know if we can deliver the proper education and training to incarcerated people we can not only help them fulfill their dreams but also help our great state meet its workforce needs,” UW System President Tommy Thompson said. “That is why our Prison Education Initiative holds so much potential in Wisconsin and as a model for the rest of the nation.”

Of the roughly 8,000 people who leave Wisconsin’s prison system each year, 40% will return within three years, according to the Department of Corrections. Helping incarcerated people learn skills and then find jobs upon release could change that statistic.

WEDC Secretary Hughes, Department of Corrections Secretary Kevin Carr, Department of Administration Secretary-designee Kathy Blumenfeld and Department of Workforce Development (DWD) Secretary-designee Amy Pechacek took part in a roundtable discussion Monday with Thompson and others on the UW-Madison campus.

“I have always believed education is one of the most valuable skills we can provide to others, and for people in our care, it can mean an opportunity to find success and freedom beyond incarceration,” Carr said. “I am proud to stand with all our partners in this initiative, and I’m excited about this opportunity and what it means for the future of corrections in Wisconsin.”

During the first year of the initiative, the UW System will work to identify degree programs and certificates that can be tailored to the needs of incarcerated students and the employers who are waiting to hire them upon release.

“Increasing employment opportunities for justice-involved individuals represents an important step forward in connecting this underutilized talent pool with jobs that will reduce the risk of repeat offenses and improve the chances of successful community integration for these students,” Pechacek said.

The initiative is designed to work cooperatively with similar education efforts already taking place in prisons, such as the Milwaukee Area Technical College program Medina took part in. The Wisconsin Technical College System is working with the UW System to ensure that course offerings are complementary and that credits can transfer easily between programs.

“Workforce Innovation Grants were created to find innovative solutions for our most pressing workforce challenges,” Department of Administration Secretary-designee Blumenfeld said. “All Wisconsinites, including formerly incarcerated individuals who have paid their debts to society, can play a role in our pandemic recovery. Investing in the future of our entire workforce will ultimately benefit our economy, our communities, and our state for years to come.”

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