Mike Williams finished high school at age 15, and by the time his classmates got around to receiving their own diplomas, he had another one: an associate’s degree in computer electronics at Milwaukee Area Technical College. He was judged as a bright young man by his instructors, someone who learned quickly.
But Williams also ran with the wrong crowd in those days and made a series of poor decisions as a young man that would upend his promising life for many years. He sold marijuana and was imprisoned for the crime, then was sent back to prison on probation violations.
But while in prison the last time, Williams discovered a program to train inmates at MATC prior to release. It was grueling — he worked full time in a machine shop during the day and took classes on computer numerical controlled machines at night. He had little time for anything else, even for sleep.
It paid off.
Certificate in hand, Williams, now 34, landed a job at Snap-on Inc.’s Milwaukee plant after his release; he has worked there since January 2016.
“I wasn’t making the money I should have been making because I didn’t have the diploma to back me up, and the jobs were paying me peanuts,” he said. “It’s helped me make a living wage.”
About 95% of prisoners will be released to their communities at some point. In 2015 alone, more than 640,000 people across the nation headed home, according to the National Reentry Resource Center. Unfortunately, many people return to prison because they are so unprepared for life on the outside. Nearly 70% are arrested again within three years of release, according to data compiled by the U.S. Department of Justice.
That cycle — from prison to street to prison is costly for them and for us.
But prison education programs can disrupt the cycle and put at least some prisoners on a path to employment, research shows. As plans for Foxconn’s massive Racine County plant take shape against the backdrop of a tightening labor market in southeastern Wisconsin, there is renewed interest in training prisoners as one solution to filling jobs. The numbers are relatively small but could grow as prison education programs expand.
It all begins with education, and there is compelling evidence that even a little training behind the walls goes a long way.
What the research shows
An analysis conducted by researchers at RAND Corp. in 2013 (and updated this year), found inmates who participated in prison education programs had 43% lower odds of being reincarcerated after release from prison compared to those who did not participate in these programs. The RAND study, which was an analysis of dozens of research papers going back years, found that the odds of a prisoner finding a job after release were 13% higher if they had received at least some type of prison education. If the prisoner participated in a vocational training program, the odds were even better — 28% higher compared with prisoners who did not take part in an educational program.
In recent years, Wisconsin has tried to tailor prison training to the state’s labor market.
The Department of Corrections poured an additional $3 million into educational programs in the current budget, including support for vocational education and an expansion of its Windows to Work program, which helps inmates transition back to their communities.
In fiscal year 2017, DOC spent $22.2 million on education. The department expects the additional dollars to boost vocational training capacity by about 390 inmates in fiscal year 2019 and 430 inmates in fiscal year 2020 and beyond, according to DOC spokesman Tristan Cook.
The DOC works with the Department of Workforce Development and the technical college system to design programs for jobs that look to be in demand. That includes training CNC operators like Mike Williams, industrial maintenance, construction and welding. Inmates can earn an industry-recognized credential and be eligible for work-release so they can gain experience. Of 114 inmates who received a CNC Machine Operator or Industrial Maintenance credential from April 2015 to February 2018 and were released, 103 found jobs, Cook says.
MATC has worked with prisoners for many years, and its latest efforts look especially promising. Of the 92 prisoners who had completed CNC training from April 2015 through the end of last year on the MATC campus, 94% of those who were released found jobs. Initially, the program was paid for with funding from a state grant; now students can apply for what’s known as a “Second Chance Pell Grant,” a pilot program introduced by the Obama administration.
The school also has a group of prisoner-students enrolled in arts and sciences classes within prison, and it is investigating distance learning, which could expand the school’s reach dramatically. “What they are really meant to do is develop problem-solving and thinking skills,” said Julie Ashlock, associate dean of liberal arts and sciences, who oversees the Second Chance Pell Grant program. “We’re really preparing them to be better citizens.”
And it saves money. According to DOC figures, it costs $32,340 a year to care for men and $38,643 a year to take care of women inmates. If training keeps some of them from returning to prison, those are dollars never spent.
The RAND study found that every dollar spent on prison education could save up to $5 in costs during the first three years after a prisoner is released. A rigorous cost-benefit analysis of prison programs by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy found that the benefits of both post-secondary education for prisoners and vocational educational programs far outweighed the costs in that state. The institute found a benefit after costs of more than $24,600 per participant for programs run out of the state’s prisons.
“There really is a need to create a continuum of education for those who are incarcerated,” she said. “After getting your GED, you can go onto career education, say in welding or some other skilled trade and earn industry-recognized credentials so you are employable once you’re released.”
As of this spring, 2,057 Wisconsin inmates were enrolled in educational programs of all kinds in Wisconsin prisons; 591 were getting vocational training. As of early July, the overcrowded Wisconsin system had more than 23,600 inmates locked up.
“The numbers are just a fraction of what’s needed really,” said Jerome Dillard, lead organizer for EXPO, a Wisconsin-based advocacy group concerned with mass incarceration. “There are still a lot of people who leave the institution who never get the proper programming.”
Doing it on his own
El-amin Abdullah was one of those who never got the proper programming.
Now 48, he remembers his younger self as a “fairly delinquent youth.” He spent time in a boys correctional facility in Georgia and moved to Wisconsin, where his mother lived, after his release. Soon, he was charged with an armed robbery, and at age 17, was convicted. He served three years in prison. After his release in 1990, Abdullah made a commitment to get an education. First, he earned a high school certificate and later got an associate’s degree at MATC, where he works in building services.
Abdullah also has worked extensively with prisoners over the years, notably through the Windows to Work program, and he has strong beliefs about how to help them.
“They need wraparound services,” he said. “A lot of guys, they may have employment, they may have training, but without other supportive services, they can’t do it.” That includes some short-term housing assistance or transitional housing, plenty of counseling and basic life training — like how to be smart about renting property and other day-to-day essentials that most of us would take for granted. It’s not surprising prisoners need this sort of support; they tend to have less formal education than the general population and frequently have little or no work history and severe life skills deficits.
Abdullah says having a job waiting for prisoners upon release might be most important . Otherwise, moving from the highly structured atmosphere of a prison to life in the community is a recipe for failure.
“It gives them a kind of structure,” Abdullah said. “Employment is really an important part of not going back to prison. Not only does it give them resources, it provides a sense of structure.”
Mike Williams can vouch for that. He makes about $25 an hour at Snap-on, which is enough to support him and his 14-year-old son. Since his release, Williams has invested in two duplexes in Milwaukee and would like to start his own property management business some day. “I just want to live my life now,” he says. “I’m too old to go back to prison.”
That’s how it’s supposed to work, says Sadique Isahaku, dean of the School of Liberal Arts and Sciences at MATC.
“Look at Mike. He has a job now. He has a duplex. There are many stories like that.”
Isahaku says the combination of working while awaiting release and taking classes is a challenge but also “speaks to the determination to get out of this vicious cycle. They need something to break the cycle. Education is the main way to do that.”
And prison training could, at least in a small way, begin to help employers fill jobs.
How I reported this article
• Michael Williams, a former inmate who now works for Snap-on Inc.
• El-amin Abdullah, a former inmate who works at Milwaukee Area Technical College.
• Amanda, a former inmate now working at a Milwaukee company who did not want her full name to be used.
• Michael Rosen, a retired faculty member at MATC.
• Sadique Isahaku, dean of MATC’s school of liberal arts and sciences.
• Julie Ashlock, associate dean of liberal arts and sciences at MATC who oversees the school’s Second Chance Pell Grant program.
• Mona Gauthier, associate dean of technical and applied sciences, MATC.
• Lois Davis, a senior policy researcher at RAND Corp.
• “Evaluating the Effectiveness of Correctional Education,” a 2013 meta-analysis by RAND Corp. (updated 2018).
• Cost-benefit analysis of various Washington public policies conducted by Washington State Institute for Public Policy.
• “A Rapid Evidence Assessment of the effectiveness of prison education in reducing recidivism and increasing employment,” March, 2017.
• “Prisoners in 2016,” by the U.S. Department of Justice.
• “Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie in 2018,” by the Prison Policy Initiative.
• “Making the Grade: Developing Quality Postsecondary Education Programs in Prison,” 2016, the Vera Institute.