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WUWM’s Chuck Quirmbach reports on innovation in southeastern Wisconsin.

Wisconsin Women's Prison Tries To Fill Need For More Welders

Chuck Quirmbach
Miranda Watermolen welds in the Welding Mobile Lab. The lab is currently at the Taycheedah Correctional Institution, which is near Fond du Lac, Wis.

Many of Wisconsin's 23,000 prison inmates will eventually be released. A new program tries to get more ready for the world of work, including training some women at Taycheedah Correctional Institution to be welders.

The women's prison near Fond du Lac also has a new state-staffed job center, which helps inmates search for work. The Evers administration says similar job centers are coming to two Milwaukee-area correctional facilities by the end of 2019.

Most of the welding instruction at Taycheedah takes place in a new truck trailer called the Welding Mobile Lab. The Department of Corrections and Department of Workforce Development recently brought the trailer to the prison and contracted with Moraine Park Technical College to provide teaching. 

During a tour for the news media, inmate and student Miranda Watermolen stood in a welding booth, wearing protective gear. Sparks were flying as she connected two pieces of metal. 

Outside the trailer, Watermolen says that as she's as taken part in the 2 1/2-month training program and become more skilled, welding has become attractive. 

"I love how primal it is. How hands on, and hot and dirty. I like to be that woman, working in a man's world, in all reality," Watermolen said.

Credit Chuck Quirmbach
The Welding Mobile Lab, presently at the Taycheedah Correctional Institution.

Federal data show that if Watermolen gets a job in welding, she'd be entering a profession about 95% male. But the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts the number of welding jobs will continue to grow, and that women will get some of the work. 

After being in Taycheedah for 19 months on a drug conviction, Watermolen's ready for a new start.  

"Drugs were a heavy part of my life and it's something I'm really looking forward to putting behind me with this," she says. "It's something I've always wanted to do. My brother was a welder. I really looked up to him. He had everything he ever wanted, and finally, I was like, 'This is my opportunity. This is my chance at a new life right here — because I can't fail after this.' "  

Watermolen is scheduled to be released from Taycheedah early next year.

Credit Chuck Quirmbach
Welding program graduates Amanda Franzen (left) and Miranda Watermolen.

Another welding program graduate, Amanda Franzen, is due to be released this fall. Franzen says learning the trade makes her feel empowered.

"It wasn't something I ever thought I'd be doing. Like the blueprint readings, that was hard.  But I have a knack for it.  I'm like, 'All right, I can do this.'  Welding is fun. Just being able to lay a nice bead, putting things together. It was really cool," Franzen said.

Franzen is at Taycheedah for parole violations after a conviction for theft. She and the other handful of welding graduates will get job search help at the prison's new job center before getting out.

During the media visit to the center, soon-to-be-released inmate Kayleigh Selig was filling out a job application. She's not a welder. She has experience in factory jobs and the restaurant industry, but she's pretty flexible on her next line of work.

Credit Chuck Quirmbach
The state-staffed Job Center at Taycheedah.

Selig, originally in prison for a drug violation, says the Job Center has helped her with her resume, and with mock interviews. She says she's pretty confident about leaving Taycheedah with a job waiting. 

"This is my third time here. This time, I actually get to leave with something set up, you know? I'm not just leaving with nothing and starting fresh out there," Selig said.

Selig says the prison's social workers saw her potential and chose her for the job assistance. But she says too many inmates do leave prison with nothing. 

That's a situation state officials say they hope to change. The Wisconsin Legislature approved $1 million for two welding labs. It also OK'd job centers at four correctional institutions. One center opened at Oakhill, a facility near Madison, earlier this year. Two more are scheduled to be added soon — at the Milwaukee Women's Center, and the Ellsworth Correctional Center near Union Grove. 

But there are more than 23,000 state inmates. Many will eventually be released. 

Credit Chuck Quirmbach
Department of Workforce Development Sec. Caleb Frostman (left) and Department of Corrections Sec.-designee Kevin Carr.

Plus, even if more are hired, there is the stark issue of recidivism. A 2016 study showed 25-30% of former Wisconsin inmates commit a new offense resulting in a conviction and prison sentence within three years of release. State Corrections Secretary-designee Kevin Carr says a good job can make a dent in those numbers.

"I can certainly tell you that when a person has the opportunity for employment that provides for a family-supporting job and gives them a sense of self-worth, that is really important for personal growth. It's the best antidote to recidivism," Carr said.

Department of Workforce Development Secretary Caleb Frostman says more businesses want to hire former inmates. With the state's workforce shortage, he says there's a "heightened sense of urgency." 

Support is provided by Dr. Lawrence and Mrs. Hannah Goodman for Innovation reporting.


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