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WITC course offers new options to inmates

(Jed Carlson/ Reid Welch, left, and Terrance Neubauer work on a weld at WITC in Superior before graduating on Thursday morning.

Maria Lockwood

With applause, handshakes and more than a few smiles, 14 inmates from the Gordon Correctional Center graduated from Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College’s gas metal arc welding program Thursday.

“This is really a turning point for me because now I feel like I can have a career, not just a job, said Devine Spencer of Eau Claire.

For the past five weeks, the 14 inmates, ranging in age from their 20s to 50s, have been taking the accelerated welding course with instructor John Palmer at the Superior campus.

“We’ve done seven boot camps previously with the Department of Corrections, but none where 100 percent of the student population are currently incarcerated,” Palmer said. “This group, by far, has been the most successful.”

No one’s out for a cigarette break, checking their Facebook or smart watch when class is in session, he said. It’s a throwback to teaching in the “good old days,” Palmer said, when students weren’t distracted by social media and devices.

“It’s refreshing to have a group that is on task 100 percent of the time,” he said.

The credential they earned qualifies the inmates for jobs as welders, fitters, operators and production welders, jobs with a median wage of more than $18 per hour. Or it can be one step toward a full welding degree.

“They can take that anywhere within Wisconsin,” Palmer said, because the embedded certificate is recognized by any technical college in the state.

Over the past three years, the Wisconsin Department of Corrections has placed a renewed emphasis on providing as many educational opportunities as it can for its population, according to Ray Woodruff, employment programs manager for the department.

“We have a very strong belief that education leads to greater employment, which leads to reduced crime which leads to healthier communities,” he said.

It began with a computer numerical control class in Milwaukee and has spread to courses in Madison, Green Bay, Rhinelander and Superior.

“We approached the college and asked them what is it they think we should be doing,” Woodruff said. “We’re not experts in workforce and industry, but they know the employers that constantly come to them and say ‘We need people.’”

In Superior the answer was welding. Palmer said every one of his May 2018 graduates are already working in the industry, and each could have had three jobs. It’s not just a red-hot career in the Twin Ports.

“There are welding opportunities everywhere in the state,” Woodruff said.

It was also a good fit because of the short time frame for training and the fact that it’s a manufacturing job. There are not as many stigmas related to hiring people with criminal records in manufacturing, Woodruff said.

“I’ve actually had a record since I was 18, and I’ve never filled out an application and not got the job,” said Terrance Neubauer of Trempealeau County, who has a background in welding.

Inmates work their way to a minimum security facility like Gordon through good behavior, programming and interventions, Woodruff said. At that point, they can participate in community work and education opportunities.

“To get 14 inmates interested in five weeks of a course, that’s impressive because often times when they get to a center like Gordon, they want to go out and work, make money right now,” said Sam Schneiter, deputy warden for the Wisconsin Correctional Center System.

Spencer didn’t know a thing about welding when he signed up for the course. The 27-year-old saw it as an opportunity. He found it was something he really enjoyed and was good at.

“I’ve always liked school,” Spencer said. “I never thought that going to school for a trade would be more like a classroom. I always thought it was more hands-on, but it’s both.”

The course included information on what employers expect and a glimpse at different welding careers.

“People are so closed to what welding is,” said Spencer, who plans to turn the certificate into a degree. “They think it’s just welding, but it’s a wide variety of things.”

Reid Welch, a Tomah native, transferred from a different correctional center to take part in the WITC welding program.

“Just because it gives me a better jump when I get released,” he said.

The class has been a positive experience for the Tomah native, not just because of what he learned.

“The best part is they didn’t look at us as inmates,” Welch said. “They treated us like a human being. We weren’t any different in their eyes than any other class.”

“They looked at us as students,” Neubauer said.

Woodruff said that the department will be working with the new graduates to line up job opportunities for them, whether they remain in Gordon or transfer to another correctional center. The course was funded by the Department of Corrections. WITC has secured a three-year grant to continue offering the accelerated course to inmates, according to Woodruff. The next one is set to begin in late fall or early winter.