A tiny haven of learning, peace in Dane County Jail

July 14, 2018

On the seventh floor of the aging Dane County Jail in the City-County Building, near the long halls lined with barred cells holding the highest-risk inmates, is a small, narrow room offering hope.

There, Madison school teachers Deb Anderson and Tina Geier operate Metro High, one of the school district’s four programs for youth incarcerated, or in detention or shelter who have not earned a high school diploma or turned 21.

The youth, in jail for crimes ranging from theft to homicide, attend class two to three hours a day, four days a week.

Despite a mix of personalities — sometimes the students have histories of past conflicts with one another, including ties to family members or friends involved in shootings — in 21 years of operation there has never been a fight in the room, Anderson said.

The classroom is lined with counter desks and desktop computers, cursed with a noisy fan but graced with photographs of students, their artwork on the walls and a long window bringing in light.

“Tina and I have to know what’s going on in the streets to help the students remain safe,” Anderson said. “They don’t have to be friends. But we’re not going to have people be disrespectful or threatening.”

The youth usually carry multiple, unaddressed trauma from childhood and are almost always special education students, Anderson said.

Will Thomas, 18, has been in the jail and attending school there for about six months. It’s his first time behind bars after he and three others from South Bend, Indiana, were arrested for allegedly robbing a cellphone store at gunpoint earlier this year.

Thomas, a Chicago native, was one of 14 siblings born into poverty. He recalls lacking shoes, being hungry, seeing people overdosed on drugs in apartment hallways, hearing gunshots and coming upon a dead body in a field where criminals would throw their weapons.

For a time, an older sister, 20 years old, cared for the children with 10 people in a two-bedroom apartment. Thomas was not sent to school until he was 8 years old, when his family moved to South Bend. By 16, he was homeless and committing small crimes like stealing food to survive, but still going to school. An athletic 6 feet, 6 inches tall, he had street credibility and didn’t have to fight much.

Thomas declined to discuss his case while it is pending.

Before coming to Madison, while in South Bend, Thomas hoped to get a factory job that didn’t require a diploma and find a place to live. Now, with Anderson’s encouragement, he intends to get his diploma and, while in prison, pursue state Department of Corrections offerings in general education, technical training, support groups and treatment. He is due to be sentenced in federal court on Aug. 7 and faces multiple years of confinement.

Anderson and Geier, who teaches mostly from the Dane County Public Safety Building, embrace youth like Thomas every day.

Since Anderson began the program in 1996, more than 200 youth have earned high school diplomas at the school. She and Geier use their own money to stock a tiny fridge with bottled water, string cheese, pretzels and animal crackers.

“It’s the only place (in jail) they can come and be teenagers,” said Anderson, whom the students address as “Miss Deb.”

Anderson also sees many lose hope. When she would ask what they wanted to become, she used to hear basketball or football player or rapper. “Sometimes, now, their face is blank because they don’t think they’re going to have one.”

She is concerned because their lives outside the building have become more violent. The school, she said, makes a difference because a few will be found not guilty and the majority eventually will be released.

“It’s human dignity,” Anderson said. “I live in this community. I want to make it safe for everybody.

“We do have some happy times, but we do go to a lot of funerals,” she said. “It’s a heartbreaking place, but it’s a hopeful place.”

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