As prison education expands in Wisconsin, incarcerated students find success | Education

Dressed in a royal blue graduation robe, Roberto Juarez-Nieves joyfully threw his cap into the air this month at Oregon’s Oakhill Correctional Institution. After completing five months of electrical maintenance courses, he had at last received his technical diploma from Madison College.

In many ways, he had changed from the person he once was. It had been over six years since he got caught in a drug bust turned deadly.

Then 26 years old, Juarez-Nieves arranged a drug deal with a police informant in February 2016 at an East Troy restaurant. When his brother Jose Lara saw police cars approaching, he sped off with Juarez-Nieves in the backseat.

Stationed in the passenger seat was Christopher Davis, a boyfriend of Lara’s cousin. Then-Walworth County Sheriff’s Deputy Juan Ortiz fired at the car, killing Davis, who had only been there because he allowed the brothers to borrow his car.

“I don’t want to go back to the things that brought me here,” Juarez-Nieves said, reflecting on that fateful day, which added four years to a 10 year prison sentence he was serving on separate drug charges. “I aspire to have a career. I want to give back to the things I took away.”

Thanks to the vocational and educational opportunities he’s received through the state’s Department of Corrections, Juarez-Nieves feels he is now well-equipped to reenter society.

Despite the circumstances, as well as the two cancer diagnoses he received while in prison, he has become a stellar student and even a tutor. He is well-liked by prison staff, enjoys helping others and wants to give back to his community.

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Roberto Juarez-Nieves receives his diploma during a graduation ceremony at Oakhill Correctional Institution in Oregon.

“I was down the wrong path to begin with,” he told the Cap Times at the graduation. “It’s a path that I chose, obviously, but it’s my responsibility now to take accountability and to help my community from what I’ve done.”

It won’t be the last time he graduates. Juarez-Nieves is also taking part in Milwaukee Area Technical College’s Second Chance Pell initiative. The program offers need-based federal financial aid for incarcerated individuals to enroll in postsecondary education. Juarez-Nieves is just 12 credits shy of receiving his associate’s degree.

Upon getting released early from prison next year, he hopes to start working toward his bachelor’s degree in political science. His ultimate goal is to provide for and be a role model to his three children.

“I have to be able to show my kids that, even though I was in here, I still was able to go to school, to get a career, to come home and do something great with myself,” he said. “I can take everything that I’ve learned here to better myself when I get out.”

Prison education growing in Wisconsin

Educational opportunities can be a game-changer for the thousands of people who arrive every year to Wisconsin prisons, said Jamie Reinart, an education and program training liaison at Madison College.

In partnership with the state’s technical colleges, the DOC offers vocational programs at 18 correctional institutions. By the end of their coursework, students walk away with a technical diploma and job certification in one of 23 job fields.

According to Ben Jones, DOC education director, those training opportunities are in high demand. About 1,400 of the state’s nearly 20,000 prisoners are enrolled in vocational programs. Another 8,000 people are on the waitlist.

“Even if we didn’t have anybody new coming in, it would take us six years to expire the waitlist,” Jones said, noting a 20% vacancy rate for teachers in state prisons. “Not everybody who wants it gets in because resource allocation is scarce.”

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Jamie Reinart, an education and program training liaison at Madison College, and Ben Jones, Department of Corrections education director, sit in the front row for a graduation ceremony for incarcerated students at Oakhill Correctional Institution in Oregon.

Meanwhile, other post-secondary opportunities are growing in state prisons. Though Milwaukee Area Technical College is one of the only schools to offer an associate’s degree program in state correctional institutions, Reinart said Madison College will soon offer one of its own by this spring.

In addition, the Odyssey Beyond Bars program expanded its English 100 college-credit course to four state prisons this past semester. The University of Wisconsin-Madison organization will add an intro to psychology class next year.

In collaboration with UW-Madison and four other campuses, the UW System will also soon offer incarcerated students a pathway to a bachelor’s degree through its Prison Education Initiative. Last December, the program received a $5.7 million grant from Gov. Tony Evers and the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp.

Odyssey Beyond Bars founder Peter Moreno, who is helping lead the effort, said the initiative will launch by the 2023 academic year, putting Wisconsin’s correctional education programs on track with other states.

“We’re behind,” Moreno said. “Other states have much more robust higher education and prison programs than we do.

“Our Department of Corrections and technical college system have been doing very well with the resources they have, but it’s time for the university system to get off the bench and join this space.”

Renewed investment in post-secondary opportunities

The expanded offerings in Wisconsin prisons come at an opportune time. Correctional education is garnering bipartisan support nationwide. And after a 26-year ban, in 2020 Congress approved the reinstatement of Pell Grant eligibility to prisoners, starting July 1, 2023.

Under new regulations released this July by the U.S. Department of Education, any public or private nonprofit college will be able to start a prison education program next year.

Up until 1994, Pell Grants directly funded college prison initiatives, resulting in the creation of 772 programs in 1,287 correctional institutions. But the passage of the 1994 Crime Bill, which eliminated Pell Grant eligibility for prisoners, eradicated those opportunities almost entirely.

By 2015, then-President Barack Obama launched the Second Chance Pell Experiment, reinstating federal grants to prisoners at select colleges.

Milwaukee Area Technical College became Wisconsin’s first experimental site in 2016. Four years later, Madison College also was approved to use federal Pell dollars toward its prison education program. Moraine Park Technical College was additionally added as an experimental site in late April.

So far, the three colleges have enrolled more than 600 prisoners combined using Second Chance Pell Grants. Across the nation, the number of incarcerated people eligible for this financial aid could swell to as many as 463,000 when the Second Chance Pell is reinstated next year, according to the Vera Institute of Justice.

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Andrew Golden hugs his instructors as he receives his diploma during a graduation ceremony for incarcerated students at Madison College.

Big payoffs for the student and the state

Becky Heth, reentry employment program manager for the DOC, said educational and vocational opportunities can foster a “mutually beneficial relationship” between incarcerated students and the state.

“It tackles the staffing shortages we’re seeing because we’re training the students in high-demand fields,” she said. “They get to have high-earning wages that help them be successful in the community upon release, and it’s helping our employers to find qualified workers.”

As part of its effort to solve the state’s labor shortage, Wisconsin’s Department of Workforce Development partners with the DOC to identify job fields in high demand, helping provide training to those who are incarcerated. Amy Pechacek, secretary-designee for DWD, sees those individuals as a pool of “hidden talent” which the state can leverage to fill vacancies for jobs like production, construction and manufacturing.

Those initiatives appear to be working. According to DOC data from 2015 to 2021, over 82% of prisoners who participated in career and technical education programs landed a job after release. Some have even secured employment during their prison sentence through the DOC’s earned release program.

“With the current demand for workers, we have found that employers are really embracing this workforce,” Pechacek said, “especially because they are entering communities with such great skills due to the targeted training that we’ve been doing with the Department of Corrections.”

Over the next decade, more than 5 million entry-level job openings will also require some form of postsecondary education, according to 2019 research from the National Conference of State Legislatures. The bipartisan organization estimated that prisoners who receive postsecondary education have a 10% better chance of obtaining higher employment and earnings when they reenter the workforce.

“Any time you can advance your skill set you’re more employable as it is,” said Aaron Sowieja, who earned a Madison College technical diploma this month while incarcerated at Oakhill. “Now we can go to an employer and show we have the schooling done already and can make a really good employee for their company. 

“It really gives us a sense of confidence because, regardless, we’re going to get out no matter what. We all have release dates,” Sowieja added. “We don’t know what the future is going to bring, but with this behind us, we know that we all have the keys to success. We’ve been given this opportunity while we’ve been in here, and I think we’re all going to take full advantage of it.”

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Amy Pechacek, secretary-designee for Wisconsin’s Department of Workforce Development, speaks at a graduation ceremony for incarcerated students at Madison College.

Lower recidivism, lower costs

According to Pechacek, about 6,000 to 9,000 people are released back into the community every year from state correctional facilities. Over 60% of people serving time in Wisconsin prisons also have five years or less left in their sentence, said DOC spokesman John Beard.

“That represents a really good opportunity to help folks fill the vacancies that employers have and obviously helps that individual successfully reintegrate into the community,” Pechacek said. “We know the best antidote to recidivism is having a stable, well-paying job.”

Wisconsin’s reincarceration rate hovers around 40%, meaning that 3,600 of the 9,000 people released from prison in 2020 will likely return to prison by 2023. According to one estimate, that could cost the state nearly $37,000 per prisoner, or around $133 million in a single year.

Proponents of prison education programs say a way to lower costs is by reducing recidivism. Research shows that education can prevent incarcerated people from returning to prison once they are released, and in turn, save the state money.

A study by the Vera Institute found that inmates who receive an education while incarcerated are 43% to 72% less likely to recidivate, saving taxpayers an average of $5 for every $1 spent on prison education. According to the nonprofit research organization, the projected nationwide savings from reduced recidivism total $365.8 million per year.

“Almost everyone who is in prison is getting out someday,” added Odyssey Beyond Bars’ Moreno. “We need to be asking ourselves: What kind of folks do we want to be coming out of prison?

“I think a lot of folks think that prison is going to be corrective in some way just by the fact that the person is spending time in prison — but it doesn’t work that way,” he said. “There really has to be effort put into providing people in prison new opportunities to think of their lives in a different way. That happens through education.”

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Incarcerated students receive their diplomas during a graduation ceremony at Oakhill Correctional Institution in Oregon.

Making the change

For Robert Taliaferro, taking courses in prison proved that his mind was not locked up, even though his body was. “I wasn’t a dummy,” the 67-year-old said. “I just did dumb things.”

In 1984, Taliaferro was convicted of first-degree murder in Wisconsin. Though he was serving a life sentence, he vowed to not let that stop him from furthering his education.

At Minnesota Correctional Facility in Stillwater, where he was sent due to overcrowding at Wisconsin’s facilities, he enrolled in several college courses. From 1985 to 1989, he edited the facility’s newspaper, The Prison Mirror.

After returning to Wisconsin to the Oakhill Correctional Institution, Taliaferro persuaded Odyssey Beyond Bars to accept him into the English 100 course last year despite his already extensive writing experience. The opportunity showed him the power of education in changing prisoners’ perspectives.

“You’d see light bulbs start popping up in their heads — all over the place. You’d see their eyes light up,” he recalled. “They were getting rewarded for their content and realizing that they’re good enough. If they hadn’t been involved in the Odyssey program, they might not have known that.”

By the time he left prison this January, after serving 37 years behind bars, Taliaferro went from having six college credits to 198. Two weeks after his release, he landed a position at the Minneapolis community-building organization StairStep Foundation, where he is working to expand its programming in prisons.

He is also finishing up the few remaining credits he needs to receive a bachelor’s degree at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul and has plans to pursue a master’s degree in human services administration.

“Now I’m off paying taxes,” he said, “rather than being a burden for the taxpayer.”

Like Taliaferro, Sowieja, who has been incarcerated for nearly six years, believes education can provide incarcerated people with a second chance. He said the vocational courses he’s taken have opened him up to all the possibilities awaiting him post-release.

“I think I’m now farther along and ready to live the rest of my life successfully than I would have been if I was on the streets,” he said. “I really want to let people know that just because we’re in prison doesn’t mean we’re bad people.”

“We’ve done bad things, but a lot of us are looking to better our lives,” he added. “We’re looking to get out there and be productive members of society, and I really think that these reentry opportunities and these schooling options are a beneficial and necessary part of incarceration.”

Juarez-Nieves agreed, saying that the growth he’s experienced in prison will ensure he won’t “make the same mistakes over again.”

“Even though we committed crimes and we did what we did while we were out there — we hurt our community and families — we’re still taking full advantage of the opportunities that are placed before us here,” he said. “People can change. Through education, you can choose to change. You can better yourself.” 

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