“I was new in town,” the Hixton man told me. “I hadn’t lived here very long and someone asked if I would volunteer.”
“I go out there every week,” the woman from Alma Center shared. “I have been teaching men how to read.”
A group of citizens gathered around me at the fair. Many of them were volunteering to help men mend their lives and stay out of prison. They wanted to tell me stories of their work.
The volunteers work with inmates at the Black River Correctional Center which is part of the Challenge Incarceration Program (CIP). Located among the pines in eastern Jackson County, this ‘Boot Camp’ style program is one of a growing number of “alternatives to incarceration”. Working with men who have alcohol and drug problems, staff and volunteers have a success story to tell about Wisconsin’s correctional system.
Our state has an unusually high number of incarcerated individuals. For comparison, Minnesota has about the same crime rate and a similar population as Wisconsin, but our western neighbor has about two-thirds fewer inmates. At about $30,000 a year to keep someone incarcerated, the costs add up.
Every state faces the problem of recidivism - those who commit another offense after being released. As near as I can tell, about sixty-percent of Wisconsin inmates, once released, return to prison. This is a dismal statistic; not only bringing huge costs to the state but wasted lives - of those incarcerated and the families they leave behind.
This is why, when Superintendent David Andraska mentioned the program at the Black River Correctional Center (BRCC) had a seventy-five percent success rate after six years, I paid attention.
In the past six years almost 1,000 men have traveled down the long, pine lined drive and faced six months of manual labor, military drills, rigorous physical exercise, regimentation and discipline, instruction on military bearing, intensive substance abuse counseling and individualized education. About 70 men in drab green uniforms performed a drill for visitors in the afternoon heat last Saturday.
More men, observing the drill, later stood at the podium and reminisced about their days in drab green. Many, dressed in brightly colored clothes, spoke of being ‘on the inside’. They came as graduates of the BRCC program to celebrate their new crime-free lives of sobriety. But, one by one, these men came forward to also share words of encouragement with current BRCC inmates.
“I used to make illegal money,” said one. “Now all my money is legal.”
“I have a wife and baby now. I work two jobs,” said another. “My life is changed.”
“Open your heart,” a program graduate told the inmates. “Let these people help you. You will get back every thing you put into it.”
I joined the group to provide words of encouragement. “You chose to walk down the path toward success, to stand firm against adversity,” I said. “Deep in your heart, you know you have crossed a threshold and will never go back.”
Judging by what the BRCC graduates told the crowd, they had no intention of going back. The staff and the volunteers helped these men gather the tools and skills necessary to lead a new life. It was hard, but they were staying on track.
Many thanks to the staff and volunteers at BRCC; the lives you save benefit us all.