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As worker shortage endures, Wisconsin policymakers look to help justice-involved people find jobs

Maayan Silver

When people return to the community after serving a prison sentence they often face obstacles to getting a job.

Sometimes that’s because they don’t have the training, or the access, or they’re dealing with enduring drug, alcohol or mental health issues.

So, legislators in Madison are doing something about it. The Joint Legislative Councilis a bipartisan group of 22 legislators whose primary responsibility is to put together study committees to tackle hard issues. Study committees generally meet in between legislative sessions in even-numbered years.

Tuesday was the first meeting of a study committee tasked to review obstacles to employment and job training for prison inmates or those recently released.

“We know that the best antidote for recidivism is a good paying job,” says Dr. Silivia Jackson, re-entry director for the Wisconsin Department of Corrections.

“So I think that it's critical that [justice-involved people] leave prison with skills, so that they can obtain employment immediately, and be able to earn a living wage that keeps them engaged in the community, reconnected with their family, all of these things make a difference. And housing is an issue as well, in our state,” says Jackson.

Jackson detailed several programs already available through the DOC. There are mobile training labs at medium security prisons, classrooms inside the prison’s fence where teachers train inmates in high demand fields. There are also career and technical education academies in prisons. There’s a “windows to work” readiness program, which targets people who are at high risk of reoffending and are not job ready.

And Jackson discussed job centers inside the prisons where people can write resumes, work on typing skills, learn about apprenticeships and more.

There are also “primary programs” ranging from anger management to substance abuse treatment to employment programming and adult basic education.

Those programs generally have thousands of people on the waitlist.

Some of those programs are facing staffing shortages, says Lisa Reibel, Deputy Warden for the Wisconsin Women's Correctional System. “So our treatment programs in particular are really affected right now by staff vacancies. Those are typically provided by social workers and treatment specialists, and we have had some struggles recruiting in those areas. Our teachers are not as bad.”

There’s short staffing overall in Wisconsin prisons right now, but Reibel says there can be a long waitlist for other reasons besides staffing.

For a Career Technical Education course, for instance, there’s a waitlist of more than 10,000 with only 522 enrolled. “Our Career Technical Education waitlist is our longest,” says Reibel. “And it also is our smallest number enrolled because those programs are longer in length. So, it takes a little bit more time for people to get through those programs than our other programs.”

Dr. Sadique Isahaku is on the committee, he’s dean of general education at MATC. “I mean, 10,000 individuals waiting to get career and technical education. I mean, that’s unacceptable.”

He says the 16 technical colleges around the state have capacity to train those people—they just need the access.

When Democratic state representative Evan Goyke asked how it’s decided who’s on or off the waitlist, Melissa Roberts, the DOC assistant deputy secretary, says that’s where it gets difficult.

“Because we want everyone to be a priority, right?” says Roberts. “But we only have these spots. So, one of the big criteria that we use is release date. So generally, not always but generally those with a longer sentence are going to wait a little bit longer than those who are getting out in two to five years.”

Eli Rivera is CEO of The Way Out, a Milwaukee organization which helps the formerly incarcerated find jobs. He and other stakeholders are on the study committee along with a bipartisan group of legislators.

He says there’s an alternative to focusing on training only for people getting released within 6-12 months. Rivera suggests that those with longer sentences can learn and help train others. “Then they have the opportunity, they're going to be there for a while. So, they're continuing to learn, they're continuing to sharpen their own saw, so to speak, and they're contributing to the training and the low bandwidth that exists today.”

Lenard Simpson of the Wisconsin Technical College System brought up another obstacle. He says that security within the prisons can get in the way of accessing students. He wonders if there’s a way to give people education instead of prison.

“If we have so many folks that are waiting to be educated, what can we remove legally? Can something be done to where a person can receive education instead of even going to prison? Is there a way to even put them on the bracelet so they can receive all these other things that could be in place,” says Simpson.

The good news for justice involved individuals is that, right now, employers are desperate for workers, says Michele Carter. She is division administrator of the Division of Employment and Training at the state Department of Workforce Development.

“And they're asking a lot about what they can do to bring in individuals,” says Carter. “And so, we were talking about and identifying justice involved individuals as a key audience or kind of target group that they could work with. So, I do think it's new, because I think employers are just starting to think more out of the box, because they didn't used to have to think out of the box.”

The committee will get input from a variety of sources and submit draft legislation to the Legislature.

Maayan is a WUWM news reporter.
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