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Wisconsin program helps those in criminal justice system

March 5, 2018

LA CROSSE, Wis. (AP) — Kemesha Harper’s future is bright.

The La Crosse woman is set to graduate from Western Technical College in La Crosse this spring with a degree in human services. She wants to work with at-risk youth.

But what makes her story remarkable are the details of her life leading to her future.

Harper is an African-American single mother, living in public housing, with six operating while intoxicated arrests and multiple stays in the La Crosse County Jail.

“There was a point in my life where everything was going wrong,” she told Wisconsin Public Radio . “At the time I was working at a call center, and I absolutely hated going to work every day, and I was battling addiction. I knew that I wanted to make a change.”

Enter Project Proven, a grant-based program that has existed and been funded by the U.S. Department of Education since 2013.

The program, which originally started between Western Technical College and the La Crosse County Jail, is one of three DOE pilot programs across the country focused on helping people who’ve been incarcerated get an education or find a job.

Project Proven is a voluntary program for any adult inmate. Referrals are made by the corrections and court systems. Classes are held at the jail on topics like job skills, career planning and substance abuse.

In the first five years, about 1,000 inmates have received services with a 30 percent success rate.

The main partnership is between Western Technical College and the La Crosse County jail, but a number of other organizations are also helping inmates.

The La Crosse program has expanded to inmates in Trempealeau and Monroe counties.

Project Proven has helped inmates in the three counties with things like taking basic adult education courses, obtaining a GED, or taking college courses, said Project Proven Manager Tonya Van Tol.

Now, the La Crosse chapter of Showing Up For Racial Justice is trying to raise $12,000 to start an endowment fund that would lead to $2,000 in annual scholarship money that could be used by people of color who are in jail and join Project Proven.

“If you just choose a comfortable life and you only worry about yourself, you don’t create the community that we really need to create,” said La Crosse SURJ member Pat Lunney. “Wisconsin has the largest percentage of African-American men incarcerated in the country. La Crosse is no different to that.”

If the endowment is successful, it would be the first time Project Proven had funding specifically designated to help minorities.

Of the 878 people who were booked for an alleged crime between February and December 2017, 76 percent were white and 19 percent were black, said Project Proven Manager Tonya Van Tol citing La Crosse County Jail statistics.

She said the most recent La Crosse County statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau show 92 percent of the population is white and 1.5 percent is black.

She said it’s time the program starts focusing on helping people of color who have been incarcerated find a better life.

“The money that the SURJ donors are looking at supporting us with would help with things like rent, deposits, child care assistance, transportation, work boots, work clothes, interview clothes,” Van Tol said. “Small, simple things that really can stand in people’s way and be major barriers for them.”

Harper received a different scholarship through Project Proven last summer that helped her pay the rent and other bills she had.

“These things are so very important,” she said. “I work two part-time jobs, I have an internship and I’m a full-time student. The help is definitely appreciated.”

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Information from: Wisconsin Public Radio, http://www.wpr.org

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