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‘I built too many prisons': Former Wisconsin governor wants more inmates to get degrees

The former four-term Republican governor says he’s had a change of heart in his approach to criminal justice

Tommy Thompson

In this April 15, 2010 file photo, former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson addresses a tea party rally in Madison, Wis.

AP Photo/Andy Manis

By Kelly Meyerhofer
The Wisconsin State Journal

MADISON, Wis. — The details are fuzzy, but Tommy Thompson’s idea to “turn a prison into a university” is starting to take shape.

The Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. late last year awarded the University of Wisconsin System and the Department of Corrections a $5.7 million grant to expand college pathways for inmates. The grant provides a much-needed boost for the project, which Republicans declined to fund in the state budget passed last summer.

Thompson, the former four-term Republican governor, oversaw the largest expansion of the prison system in the state’s history. But he said he’s had a change of heart in his approach to criminal justice. A lot of people who end up behind bars don’t need to be there, he said.

“I built too many prisons,” the current UW System interim president told several of Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ cabinet secretaries Monday during a roundtable discussion about the project, a regret he has previously expressed. “I think we need to be much more interested in rehabilitation.”

About 40% of Wisconsin inmates released in 2016 were reincarcerated within three years, according to DOC data.

“What a waste,” Thompson said. “Society can do better than that.”

Thompson leaves his UW position March 18 and said Monday he is still mulling his next move, but ruled out retirement. Though he suggested his next move would be in the private sector, he continued to keep open the possibility that at 80 he might run for governor again. He deferred questions about the upcoming gubernatorial election — in which former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch faces a Republican primary challenge from former Marine Kevin Nicholson — to the end of April.

Pilot program

Research has shown that letting incarcerated people pursue education while in prison decreases recidivism.

DOC already offers some two-year associate degree programs with technical colleges, as well as individual courses through a partnership with UW-Madison’s Odyssey Beyond Bars, which this semester expanded from being offered at one correctional facility to four. But the agency generally lacks bachelor’s degree completion programs, said Peter Moreno, who is leading the System project and also spearheads the Odyssey program.

The System’s pilot program will target five UW campuses: Madison, Green Bay, Milwaukee, Parkside and Oshkosh.

Staff will spend much of the next year continuing the planning process, Moreno said. There’s a lot to be ironed out, such as deciding what courses and programs to offer, developing an adequate technology infrastructure, building up advising services and finding physical space within prisons for classes. The hope is to have a degree program up and running by fall 2023. The grant expires at the end of 2024.

In the more immediate future, Moreno envisions “stackable microcredentials” and “badges” that inmates can earn as they progress through a program. He’s also hoping to add more certificates or course options to the Odyssey program.

“These jump-start programs we’re teaching,” he said, “it’s partially about teaching employable skills but it’s also about mindset change and getting people to recognize that they’re capable of a range of things in life and if they want to pursue a certain job when they get out, if they want to have a certain life, it’s up to them. They have the capacity to get there. It’s about providing that sense of belief in themselves and the opportunity to start on that path.”

Some 70% of the 20,000 people in Wisconsin’s prisons have already completed high school or have an equivalency diploma.

Educational opportunities for the prison population are expected to grow even more because of a federal law change that opens up financial aid to inmates who previously were unable to get federal Pell Grants under a sweeping 1994 crime bill. Congress lifted the ban in late 2020.

A former Odyssey participant who spoke at Monday’s event, Robert, recently got out of prison after nearly 40 years behind bars. Because of the connections he made through the program, he said he already has a well-paying job as a curriculum writer for a foundation.

“Within two weeks (of release), I became a productive citizen,” he said. “I’m paying taxes, I’m paying rent and bills, buying food and adding to the economy.”

(c)2022 The Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, Wis.)