MILWAUKEE — Governor Tony Evers says he’s allocating $60 million federal dollars toward Wisconsin programs that provide long-term solutions to address the state’s workforce challenges. One of the programs benefiting from this investment involves providing people who are behind bars with the opportunity to go to college.
UW System President Tommy Thompson calls the University of Wisconsin Prison Education Initiative a win-win for Wisconsin. He says it allows people in prison to get trained for a good paying job. He believes it will also provide employers with a new pool of talent amid a nationwide worker shortage.
Ramiah Whiteside says he spent 25 years in prison for a crime he committed decades ago in Milwaukee. During his time behind bars, Whiteside wanted to get a college degree, but programs and financial assistance were tough to find.
Whiteside says he was released in 2019 and he now serves as an advocate for others who are preparing to transition from prison back into society. He believes the UW’s prison education initiative could serve as the blueprint for a path to a career.
"This is perfect, it’s a no-brainer,” he said.
Governor Evers announced Tuesday that he’s allocating $5.7 million to jump start this pilot program at five UW schools across the state. Thompson says incarcerated people will have the opportunity to pursue a bachelor’s degree or to learn a trade like welding or auto-mechanics.
"It's always been my view that in order to really break the back of recidivism, of prisoners returning once they get out to return to prison because they haven't been trained,” he said. "They don't have the skills necessary to go into the workplace."
There are more than 23,000 people in Wisconsin prisons, and 70 percent of whom have high school diplomas, but just 25 percent have some form of higher education.
According to RAND Corporation, inmates who participate in correction education programs have 43 percent lower odds of re-offending. Additionally, the study found they are 13 percent more likely to find employment once they’re released.
" I think it's just made to order and we can be the model for the country,” Thompson said.
Thompson says the UW System is beginning to set up the curriculum. He says students in Wisconsin prisons may learn via virtual meetings and on-site instruction.
Whiteside says barriers will still stand in the way of formerly incarcerated people finding work, but he believes having college experience on the resume will go a long way toward launching a career.
"When you can say I am also continuing my education as I do my job search, it's kind of another feather in your cap for the employer to say, ‘Okay, she or he are still in school, they're invested, I'll give them a shot,’” Whiteside said.
Thompson says the UW system hopes to have this program in place by next fall.