A 13.5-foot-high electrical fence keeps prisoners in the Oakhill Correctional Institution in Fitchburg. Something electrifying is also happening inside.
Men who flunked out or zoned out are now learning from dedicated teachers, obtaining a vital key to their future lives. The prison teaches basic reading and math skills, as well as vocations including horticulture, building services and computer skills.
"Education is absolutely a top priority, next to security," says Deirdre Morgan, the warden at Oakhill since 2004. "It's the only way to give people choices and a way to get out of poverty. It opens doors and gives opportunities not there otherwise."
A 2001 study of more than 1,000 Minnesota inmates found significantly lower recidivism rates among those who participated in education programs - 14% compared to 21%. And those who attended classes in prison also earned higher wages upon release.
"The drop in recidivism is large and has important fiscal and policy implications," the study found. "Education provides a real payoff to the public in terms of crime reduction and improved employment of ex-offenders."
Of 22,444 prison inmates in Wisconsin in 2008, just 42% had a high school diploma or an equivalency diploma. Moreover, more than half read below a ninth-grade level and 70% performed math below that level.
Oakhill's Ray Schlesinger, an instructor in the state prison system for 15 years, says the problem is not just the lack of high school diplomas, but the level of learning. He's taught men who went through 10th grade but can only read at a third-grade level.
In class, Schlesinger uses real-life examples whenever possible. For example, he uses parole dates to calculate fractions of prison time remaining.
He talks easily with the men, occasionally joking. But he keeps them on task. When one inmate asks about the U.S. economic crisis, Schlesinger says, "Let's see if we can do the GED stuff first before we get into Wall Street finance."
Like most of the 12 men at desks in the classroom, Arty Hamlin is working on his high school equivalency diploma (HSED). He already has a certificate of general educational development (GED) but wants the higher standard, which includes health, civics and employability tests in addition to the GED basics of math, reading, writing, science and social studies.
"I think this is great," says Hamlin, 39, who was extradited to Wisconsin from Illinois for possession of drugs with intent to deliver. "I have the social studies test coming up. I have a good teacher. I wish I had him 20 or 30 years ago. I would have had my regular high school diploma."
Originally convicted of burglary, David Smith, 40, earned his own HSED at Oakhill in February. Afterward he went through training to become an inmate tutor. He's since been released.
"There is a good program here, with some good teachers," says Smith. "It's awesome what can be done for somebody like me. My limitations are less than they were."
Twenty-seven Wisconsin correctional institutions have high school diploma programs, and most also offer vocational and basic educational assistance.
Oakhill, formerly a reform school for girls, houses about 700 inmates. The education program, Oakhill School, is run out of a 63,000-square-foot stone building that has recreational and craft facilities on the ground floor and a computer room, library and classrooms on the second floor. The computers link up to others in the prison system, so inmates who transfer here can continue education programs they started at other institutions.
On average, 80 students attend basic literacy and HSED classes each month. In 2008, 64 earned their high school credentials, and inmate tutors assisted 225 learners during that year. Overall in the state prison system, 1,096 inmates completed their HSED or GED work in 2008, and about 11,000 have done so since 1998.
Graduation ceremonies for graduates of educational and vocational programs are conducted three times a year, with families and friends attending. Oakhill graduates wear caps and gowns, and commencement speakers in recent years have included former Superintendent of Public Instruction Elizabeth Burmaster, State Supreme Court Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson and Madison Police Chief Noble Wray.
Inmates take a basic education test when they enter the prison system, followed by a more comprehensive test when they get to their institution, explains Jack Rice, education director at Oakhill.
"The test shows what they are weak in," says Rice. If they read at less than a sixth-grade level, they would take basic education classes. If they score at sixth grade or above and don't have a high school diploma, they would take the equivalency diploma class."
The institution has six instructors - three academic and three vocational; one of the vocational spots is now vacant due to a state hiring freeze. Though the Department of Corrections educational program was not targeted for cuts in the new state budget, vacancies are receiving additional review before they are filled.
Classes are in three-hour sessions, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, Monday through Friday, year-round except when teachers are on vacation. Each class has about 15 students.
"My teachers are like classroom managers," Rice says. "One student may be reading at a seventh-grade level and another reading at a fifth-grade level, and others would be working on math. It's according to individual needs."
Schlesinger is in charge of training inmate tutors at Oakhill, a program of the Wisconsin Institutions Literacy Council. Successful trainers receive a certificate that can be used upon release to continue tutoring in the outside world.
Almost 2,000 inmate tutors have been trained since 1998 in Wisconsin prisons.
"The tutors are invaluable," Schlesinger says. "A lot of the learners thrive on individual attention, and this gives the tutors something productive and socially beneficial to do. It is a shame not to use their talent."