MILWAUKEE — More than two dozen men and women who are behind bars in Wisconsin graduated with college degrees on Friday.
"We're not just a label. We are people who want to do right, we want to do good, but we got caught in unfortunate circumstances," said Martin Medina, one of the inmates who participated in the program. He said Friday was a dream come true as he became a first-generation college graduate.
"It gives me hope, on a personal level, that I can achieve far more than what I ever thought was possible. On the bigger scale it gives me hope that I can influence the next generation of my family and even just other individuals in society to have the role models that I never had before," said Medina.
Medina was one of 25 inmates who received diplomas Friday as part of the "Second Chance Pell Pilot Program." It's a collaborative effort between the Wisconsin Department of Corrections (DOC) and Milwaukee Area Technical College (MATC).
The program is fast growing.
"Last year, we had approximately 150 participants at 12 institutions. The current semester that is launching this week has 200 participants at 14 institutions, including 2 maximum (security institutions) which is a major feat," said Ben Jones, Department of Corrections Education Director.
DOC Secretary Kevin Carr spoke to the graduates, calling education "vital" as they prepare for life after incarceration. Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes stopped by to speak to the graduating inmates as well. He pointed out that research by the RAND Corporation shows that inmates who participate in "correctional education programs" are 43% less likely to end up back behind bars than those who do not.
For Martin, who says he grew up living in poverty in the "inner-city," this day brings hope for a better tomorrow. That hope is what led him to this momentous day.
"I come from a place of little hope. Where everything around you feels like its collapsing and the world is falling in on you but if you actually focus your energy on positive you can bring yourself out of that situation. Especially if you have the right mentors around you," he said.
Medina is now hoping to continue his education and achieve a Bachelor's degree in either Psychology or Business Administration. Just one example of an accomplishment inspiring incarcerated individuals who are determined to get their lives back on track.