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Ryan Owens: Turn a Wisconsin prison into a school

March 17, 2019
Ryan Owens

Some things make so much sense they simply demand attention. That’s what we call “common sense.” And when a policy will save Wisconsin millions of dollars, put people and businesses to work, and enhance the dignity of our citizens, policymakers should take heed.

That kind of winning, common-sense policy is exactly what the Tommy G. Thompson Center on Public Leadership examined March 7 in Madison at its conference on prisoner re-entry. At issue was former Gov. Thompson’s recent idea to transform a correctional facility into a place that offers vocational — perhaps even secondary — education to appropriate prisoners. The diverse group of panelists, which included conservatives and liberals, rallied around the idea — for good reason.

Nearly every prisoner who steps foot in a Wisconsin correctional institution will one day return to society. The question we face is what to do with them when they rejoin us. Policymakers must adopt rational policies that keep them from re-offending while protecting public safety and minimizing costs.

On this score, the data are clear. When released prisoners find meaningful work, they are much less likely to re-offend. Simply having a job and being part of something meaningful keeps them from re-offending. A good job goes a long way. We all benefit from that.

Conversely, without life or job skills, recently released prisoners often walk though a revolving door right back to prison. That costs taxpayers money. A lot of it. It requires more than $30,000 to house a prisoner for one year. And that doesn’t include the opportunity costs and the costs of removing potential workers from the workforce.

The plan to reduce recidivism takes three steps. In step one, prisoners receive screening to determine their aptitude for success in the job skills program. They also receive screening for substance abuse and mental health problems that may require attention. In step two, prisoners undergo a yearlong rehabilitation program (if they require it) to address their problems. In step three, program participants undertake concentrated training over the course of six to 12 months or more. This training can be vocational or even work toward an associate’s degree. Prisoners could be trained to be welders, HVAC technicians, plumbers or myriad other vocations. And for their successful efforts, they could receive three to six months of earned release (saving the state even more money).

Prisoners would walk out the prison doors with skills to hit the ground running. Many would even have jobs lined up before they leave prison. They would be less likely to re-offend and more likely to be productive members of society.

While some may worry, reasonably, about the costs associated with this program, a recent study commissioned by the Thompson Center reveals significant net savings to Wisconsin taxpayers. Wisconsin’s likely savings would be around $40 million and perhaps as great as $100 million.

The downstream benefits would be significant. Current prisoners would behave so as to get into the program. Wisconsin businesses would benefit from a larger labor pool which, in turn, would improve their profits and may even lead to greater entrepreneurial behavior. With greater sales, the state’s overall revenue also would increase. And, of course, returning prisoners who have paid their debt to society could reclaim their lives.

Others may worry about the normative implications of “rewarding” a population that saw fit to break our laws. This is a serious consideration but not one that undercuts the proposal. Some people’s crimes demand they remain in prison until death takes them. But lawmakers could tailor eligibility to those whom they believe deserve it. They could further require program participants to pay back the cost of their education in full or in part.

Many states have adopted criminal justice reform in recent years. Among them are deep red states such as Texas and Tennessee, and bright blue states such as Connecticut. The two architects of Tennessee’s criminal justice reform legislation actually spoke at the Thompson Center’s recent conference. One was a conservative Republican and the other a liberal Democrat. The White House, too, has come out in favor of similar common-sense reform.

Wisconsin’s policymakers should strongly consider a policy that allows private businesses, technical schools or the University of Wisconsin System to work with correctional facilities to train soon-to-be-released offenders. It’s a common-sense solution with a fiscally sound backbone that appeals to conservatives and liberals. It can be a bipartisan win that makes everyone proud.

Prisoners could be trained to be welders, HVAC technicians, plumbers or myriad other vocations. And for their successful efforts, they could receive three to six months of earned release.