In picking up the cause of justice reform, I realized I was committing to learning more about how we handle people we consign to the system. There are a lot of things we ‘know’ as people who talk about being ‘tough on crime’. But it’s good to review your opinions on occasion, to find out if the things being done in the name of ‘justice’ are good public policy that is supported by evidence.
As I mentioned previously, 95% of people we incarcerate will return to our communities. Our hope, our expectation, is that they return to us having served their time, ready to join our communities as productive members of society. For many this means learning skills that can help support them financially, as well as social skills that can help them better integrate into life outside the Department of Corrections. For some, substance abuse treatment is needed, and for others, conflict resolution and anger management might be the tools they need to develop. Religious people on the right believe in redemption, and we believe in helping to provide tools that make redemption possible, as well as more likely. One of those tools is education.
When I wanted to learn more about educational opportunities available to inmates in prisons, I thought of my friend Bill Hansen. Bill has worked for over fifteen years in the Wisconsin Department of Corrections, teaching at various times ESL, civics, general GED classes and GED Social Studies, among other things. Bill would commute 160 miles round trip to teach, and for significantly less money than the teachers at the Technical College that certified his program. That’s not a guy holding down a job; that’s a man with a calling, doing something he feels is important, something he truly believes in.
Bill taught inmates of a rather diverse population – blacks, whites, Hispanics, even some Hmong in his ESL classes. These students averaged about 30 years old, and they were serving sentences of around five years on average. Some of them were as young as 17 and 18, having ‘graduated’ from the juvenile system, and others were in their 70s. Most were no strangers to the criminal justice system, having served time somewhere in some capacity before they ended up in Bill’s class.
I asked Bill about his experiences, and what it was like to teach in prison.
FISHIE: I learned that violent prisoners are housed far more often in state than federal prisons. Were your classes risky for you? Did you have to deal with violence on top of the teaching?
BILL: In nearly 16 years I never had to use the Panic Button on the wall near my desk because I felt threatened. I did push it twice because guys were having seizures…and because my room was next to the officer’s desk, I stepped out and asked him to come in and escort a guy out who wasn’t doing what I had asked him to do. I think that had happened twice.
When I taught at the high school you could count on a fight or back talk or a threat once a week…and that was a really nice school with great kids.
FISHIE: So you really had much more to do with discipline in the high school years.
BILL: In my time at WIDOC I wrote 2 incident reports and one conduct report, and got two guys removed from my class…for harassing a Hmong student.
FISHIE: Tell me more about the difference between teaching the high school kids and the inmates
BILL: Kids in high school had little interest in the Bill of Rights or candidates for office, until they were seniors. And even then, only marginally. These guys would come into class and say, “Did you watch Frontline last night?” or “Did you see on the news last night that so and so said….” and then they would want to know what I thought, or have me explain a concept or who some people were. The Brexit was big…and currency fluctuation was a big topic. Man, I’ll miss that.
FISHIE: So a lot more engagement and interest?
BILL: I had to be on my game, all the time. I got “kites” (in house telegrams) from inmates asking me to settle arguments that guys I didn’t even have in class were having – about topics I didn’t have any expertise in. My favorites were things like “My celly and I are debating about the sex of worms…”
FISHIE: So even though there might be personality clashes, would you say by and large the program was full of guys who took the educational opportunities seriously?
BILL: Yes, the vast majority want to get their HSED (that’s the GED and a extra state mandated component consisting of Civics, health and employability). Some guys just like going to school. We have guys that are just trying to raise their reading and math scores. We also have vocational programs offered through the Techs and college correspondence courses through the UW.
FISHIE: What kind of vocational programs?
BILL: Our vocational programs are great. We have a horticulture program that does landscaping around the institution and has a huge vegetable garden that supplies the main kitchen and the training kitchen. They also have a great green house that keeps the inmates and classrooms and offices in plants and flowers year round. There is also a Vermiculture program (not part of the school) a worm farm that eats up vegetable scrap and cardboard rather than sending it to a landfill, and then produces a huge amount of castings for the garden and that they sell along with plants from the green house to visitors and staff. Other vocational programs are institutional food preparation, the training Kitchen, Computer Readiness (MS Office Suite), building maintenance, and Braille transcription. We also have a Service Dog training program, and will soon be starting a dog groomers program. That’s not all of them either.
FISHIE: Do you have any favorite stories about inmates you taught? Success stories? Good outcomes to share?
BILL: I still feel really good about helping Sam learn to read. He was a lumberjack from the north woods of Wisconsin, a really friendly old guy. He was in my last class of the day, and it was small, so I could work with him. He was embarrassed, but always took work back to his room every night. About every few months I moved him up a book, then one night I saw him with a Zane Gray western. Basically, in about sixteen months he went from almost a non-reader to Zane Gray. When he moved on to his next class, he teared up and thanked me, said if someone had helped him earlier he would have learned so much more.
If I start talking success stories it’ll sound like I’m bragging. I should say that almost every teacher has these same stories. And it’s not bragging; it’s what we do, and how they feel about what we do, and why the people I work with are such a top notch bunch. But I really enjoyed teaching ESL and building that program. I got non-English speakers to speak English well enough that they were able to pass their GED tests in English. I’ve had dozens of guys come back before leaving to go home or being transferred to tell me that they would never have gotten their HSEDs without my help.
FISHIE: You really have been more in a mission field than just working in a job. And from hearing your account, it sounds like Wisconsin has a pretty exceptional education component in their corrections system.
BILL: There are a lot of good people working in Wisconsin Corrections. Even the US State Department has arranged for countries like Armenia and Georgia to visit us over the last few years, and our people have visited there to help them create a more modern and humane and efficient correctional system
FISHIE: That’s impressive!
BILL: That’s why I enjoyed working there. Good people doing a good job. I couldn’t have asked for more.
I’ll be updating this article with some supplementary statistics from the Wisconsin Department of Corrections when they send them along, but I really thought it was worth it to have Bill’s story recounted, with or without the bigger picture context.
SIDE NOTE: Not every system has the features that Wisconsin does, but the free market is trying to help fill in the gap. I recently heard of Edovo, a tablet-based education program for inmates that currently serves corrections facilities in California, Pennsylvania, and Alabama. Edovo stands for Education Over Obstacles, and aims to help reduce recidivism by increasing educational opportunities for inmates. I’ll try to explore other education efforts in the future, but I felt it was a good idea to mention Edovo here, since few people know what options are available for inmates to learn transition skills for their eventual release.