Delivering the Graduation Speech to Prisoners

The month of May brings us graduation time. Many of us are proud and excited to be with the graduates and as they move on to a new life. This week I will be joining the graduates, but in an unusual place.

I will be delivering the commencement address at the local prison.

“What do you tell someone who just graduated from high school and is facing five years in prison?” On a beautiful spring day I am mulling over a completely new task.

I serve on the Senate Committee on Judiciary and Corrections. Much of the work in the Senate is done through committees.  And this committee has been on the road lately, working hard to serve the state.

Last Friday we were in Milwaukee visiting a juvenile detention facility - a minimum security facility - and learning about the state of the justice system in a very long public hearing.

It is a new world for me – both the prisons and Milwaukee!

Learning about the problems in corrections is a lesson in what is wrong in our state. Drugs and alcohol are huge problems. Seventy percent of prisoners have some type of drug or alcohol problem. Mental illness affects many prisoners, with at least 10 percent diagnosed as seriously mentally ill. A large number of our prisoners come from Milwaukee – somewhere between 40 to 60 percent (I heard several numbers). Children of incarcerated parents are seven times more likely to end up in prison.

I met some of these children who were the next generation behind bars. I spoke with a class of boys and then with a group of 15-year-old girls. All were students in high school and all would eventually be released.

Many of the girls were returning to the detention facility after running away. Most were running to their families – and away from foster care. Many of the parents had drug and alcohol problems or mental illness.

The two senators accompanying me and I tried to find out what could be done to keep the children from returning to detention. Family problems seemed paramount. “What if things were different in your family? Would that make a difference?” I asked. Every hand in the room shot up.

One girl, who had run away several times, told a heart-breaking story of running away to be with her mom, only to be returned to a long list of different foster homes. “It’s so hard to get to know a new family over and over again. I just want to be myself and be with my own family.” Unfortunately, the judge told me later, her mother couldn’t take care of her.

The problems of families falling apart kept coming back to me. One of the workers told me, “The parents don’t get treatment for mental illness and they fall apart. When they do – their families fall apart. The children suffer.”

We all pay for those who are in prison. We pay an average of $27,776 a year or $76 a day to keep about 21,000 men and 1300 women. The prisons are overcrowded - at 130 percent of capacity – which creates problems for staff as they work to keep order.

When we visited the adult facility in Milwaukee, we met with prisoners who were about to be released. Again we asked prisoners “What would keep you from returning to prison?” Jobs, training and education were high on the list. These men wanted to work. But they had no skills. More than half of prisoners have no high school education.

The work-release coordinator we spoke with estimated that 80 percent of the group he was working with had no high school education. Prisoners who do have a high school diploma are 30 percent less likely to return to prison.

We all save money if we can keep people out of prison: real money – for schools and health care. We need to figure out what works to stop criminals.

Back to my task at hand: What do you tell someone graduating from high school and facing time in prison?

Graduating from high school is a big step forward, even if you are 30 and facing five years in prison. I remember what I told Ariel and her classmates.

Every one of us was put on this earth for a reason.  “If you believe in God,” I told the girls, “as I believe, for each of us God has a plan.

“What you are going through is hard. But the difficulties make you strong. Some day your strength will help you do what needs to be done. As you face hard times, keep your dreams in your heart. Don’t give them away by breaking the rules, using drugs, getting angry or running away. Keep your dreams close. Some day you will use the strength you’ve gained to follow those dreams. And you, too, can make a difference in our world.”

If you have ideas on our prison system, or any other topic, let me know. Black River Falls at (715) 284-1730; In Eau Claire at (715) 838-0448 or in Madison at (877) 763-6636 (toll free); or write: State Capitol; P.O. Box 7882 Madison, WI 53707-7882 or email Sen.Vinehout@legis.wisconsin.gov.