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WUWM's Emily Files reports on education in southeastern Wisconsin.

'An untapped resource:' Marquette's prison education program is growing

The EPP Leadership Team (from left to right): Shar-Ron Buie, Darren Wheelock, Theresa Tobin, Robert S. Smith, Marisola Xhelili Ciaccio.
Marquette University
The EPP Leadership Team (from left to right): Shar-Ron Buie, Darren Wheelock, Theresa Tobin, Robert S. Smith, Marisola Xhelili Ciaccio.

Students in two Southeast Wisconsin prisons can take Marquette University classes. And traditional Marquette students can take classes alongside incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals.

The classes are part of Marquette’s Education Preparedness Program. With help from a new $750,000 Department of Education grant, the program is offering a record 12 classes this school year. Some are on the Marquette campus, while others are offered at the Racine Correctional Institution and the Milwaukee County Community Reintegration Center (formerly the House of Correction.)

"We help people matriculate back to society, stay in society and improve society," says EPP associate director Shar-Ron Buie. "We know that the statistics demonstrate that individuals who have education are much, much, much less likely to return to prison. They are much, much, much less likely to become victims or to victimize."

The EPP serves not just students in prison, but formerly incarcerated and other legal system-impacted individuals.

For students impacted by the legal system, the classes are free up to 12 credits.

Starting in January, three system-impacted students will transition to full-time degree-seeking students at Marquette with financial support from Wheaton Franciscan Sisters Ministry Fund.

Darren Wheelock, one of the EPP leaders and an associate professor of social and cultural sciences, says the program has served more than 100 students since it expanded to the Racine Correctional Institution and Community Reintegration Center in 2021.

Starting in the spring, Marquette will also offer its first class for correctional officers — African American History — at the CRC.

Classes taught at the correctional institutions include Re-Entry and Life Post-Incarceration, Narratives of Self, and Parenting. Marquette degree-seeking students can enroll in the classes and attend in-person at the prisons.

Wheelock and Buie say the experience is eye-opening for both groups.

"The opportunity to learn alongside someone that's incarcerated can be a really powerful experience," Wheelock says. "What these classes allow our degree-seeking students is to see them as humans and to humanize that population. These are human beings with children, with dreams, with goals, with educational interests, with strength and weaknesses."

Wheelock says the system-impacted students often saw Marquette as an "exclusionary institution that couldn't include them."

"Being able to call yourself part of this community you never thought would accept you or include you, you are now a part of," Wheelock says. "So that part of it I didn't realize beforehand is having an impact — that sense of belonging."

Buie says it also changes how the system-impacted students see themselves.

"When you sit in that classroom and you're able to do the work, you realize that you can," Buie says. "There's a lot of ambition there...It's an untapped resource that's just sitting there. It's like having an oil well that nobody's drawing oil from while you're sitting here and can't drive your car."

In addition to holding classes, the EPP is working with other colleges and universities to expand education options for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people.

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Emily is WUWM's education reporter and a news editor.
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