RACINE COUNTY -- A one-of-a-kind program at a prison in Racine County is preparing inmates for the workforce while they’re still behind bars.
From the outside, life at the Racine Correctional Institution (RCI) seems like no life at all. In some ways, that’s the point. The prisoners are serving time for felony offenses, but inside the all-male medium-security facility, there are also more opportunities than ever before to help the men housed there get their lives back on track.
“I'm ready to get out there and change, and show I can be a better person than what I was,” said Shakur, an inmate at RCI.
Shakur is enrolled as a student at the Department of Corrections’ Mobile Lab, a makeshift classroom set up in a trailer in RCI’s courtyard, where inmates receive hands-on training for in-demand computer-controlled machinery jobs. They spend 5 days a week for 18 weeks learning how to read blueprints, enter codes into the computer and operate machines that replicate a design into a piece of metal or plastic.
“All of these terms, terminology, it was kind of hard. A challenge,” Shakur said.
This program has offered Shakur his first-ever work experience. He’s been incarcerated since high school, and said he never believed he would amount to anything other than a criminal—or worse.
“My sentence is a blessing,” Shakur said. “Sad to say, but the course I was going, I probably would have ended up dead.”
Now, the 23-year-old said he feels more freedom at RCI than he ever did on the streets.
“It helped me see the potential I had in myself,” Shakur said.
That’s the most rewarding part for Gateway Technical College instructor Jeremy Dutton, who splits his time between campus and the prison.
“These guys are great,” Dutton said. “They're here every day. They're asking the right questions. They're keeping me on my toes.”
Dutton teaches the inmates a semester’s worth of college credit. They even earn a certificate from Gateway once they complete the coursework.
“They could go to an entry-level position job,” Dutton said.
With guidance from the Department of Workforce Development, so far, 56 people have graduated from the program. Thirty-six of them have already been released into the community, and of those, 42 percent are employed within the computer-machinery field.
The ultimate goal is to deter offenders from reoffending once they’re back in the real world.
“Not having employment skills is a risk factor for increasing recidivism,” said Paula Decker, the education director at RCI.
Decker said the DOC is now on pace to purchase two more mobile labs for other prisons in Wisconsin by the end of 2018, in part because of the example the inmates at RCI have set.
“They see an opportunity to do something for themselves and to be able to walk out with their shoulders held back. That's not easy for a lot of these guys,” Decker said. “And we know what a challenge it is for them to get a job.”
It’s a concern that consumed RCI inmate Jonathan when he began his nearly 5-year sentence.
“When you come into prison, your time stops essentially to the world. Everybody moves on but you stop. As soon as you're released, you're right back at that day that you were locked up,” Jonathan said.
So when Jonathan heard about the mobile lab, he says he knew that was how he could make the most of his time locked up.
“It gives you a sense of purpose when you know you're going to be in demand, and no longer frowned upon because, 'oh, this guy made some mistakes in his life,’ but rather, 'he has some positive things to give back,'” Jonathan said.
Jonathan has not only completed the program, he has become a tutor for students like Shakur—putting his energy toward bettering his life and the lives of others.
“Everything that happened, I can't change. However, I can change some things, and that is, where I'm going to go in my future,” Jonathan said. “And with this program and the opportunities it's afforded me, I think that future is going to be pretty bright.”
The mobile lab comes at no expense to taxpayers. In 2014, the DOC received a one-time grant of $500,000 to get it up and running, and every year since, DOC has received an $80,000 grant to keep it operating.