Written by Lance Leonhard
On Thursday, December 14, 2017, I was invited to give the keynote address at a local commencement and recognition ceremony. I arrived a few minutes early to find my seat and to review my remarks one last time. As I scanned the crowd, the proud soon-to-be graduates smiled, talking with those nearby as they eagerly awaited the start of the ceremony.
The commencement address, delivered by Michael Washington, was articulate and inspiring, challenging those in the room to have the courage to pursue new opportunities and not be deterred by their mistakes along the way.
The ceremony concluded with North Central Technical College (NTC) President Lori Weyers highlighting the gravity of their collective achievements and expressing how proud she was of each of them.
On its face, this commencement seems no different than any other graduation ceremony you might attend, but there’s one thing that set it apart . . .
This graduation was held in the Marathon County Jail — and all of the graduates were INMATES.
You might be surprised to learn that our jail has partnered with local groups to provide educational and vocational programming to inmates for over 30 years. Today — with the help of NTC, the Job Center, Greater Wisconsin Christian Services, the Christian Assembly, and many others— the Marathon County Jail is able to offer 97 hours of programming each and every week, at no cost to the student, in the following areas:
- Adult Basic Education (high school diploma, GED/HSED)
- Careers/Employability Skills
- College Coursework
- Vocational Training (college level courses in virtual welding, welding blueprints, and machine tool)
- Academic Advising Services (giving students the opportunity to discuss their post-secondary education and career plans)
- Parenting & Personal Health Education (including Dad’s Coaching Clinic)
- …and many more!
So, what do these programs really mean for inmates?
We often talk about the importance of a second chance, and these programs certainly can be just that. Many of our inmates come into the jail with limited education, job skills, and employment history.
The reality is that virtually 100% of the individuals in the Marathon County Jail will be released back into our community.
For those willing to put in the hard work, these instructional programs can be nothing short of life-changing for them. Here’s what inmate James Hesser shared about his experience:
“Typically speaking, you don’t generally hear jail and earth-shattering opportunity for success in the same sentence, or even in the same paragraph. However, I can honestly say I am incredibly grateful for [these programs] and the privilege I was given. Though getting arrested was a critical blow to an already delicate and broken situation, I can honestly say that without that happening, I probably would have never found this amazing opportunity for not just a job, but a career with a good, reputable company. [These programs] are excellent opportunit[ies] for anybody that is willing to work towards a better life and strive to improve themselves.”
Robert Coble, also incarcerated, explained the following:
“We learn and understand that change doesn’t happen overnight, but with patience and hard work, we can change and better ourselves. . . . And when I think I have it all figured out, there is always another bump in the road. But over the months that I have attended Breaking Barriers, I have learned that I can overcome any obstacle that may come up and not to give up. . . . I encourage everyone to utilize these programs to better yourself and make your future a brighter one.
You also might be surprised to learn…
Local employers are some of these programs’ biggest supporters!
Dedicated jail staff, Program Director Ronda Zastrow, and Huber Officer Justin Forster work closely with students to link them with local businesses after they complete their coursework, setting students down the path to long-term employment. One local employer commented:
“The individuals from the jail are some of our most consistent and successful employees!”
While the image of a sheriff attending an inmate commencement might seem foreign to many, Marathon County Sheriff Scott Parks tries not to miss a graduation ceremony, believing:
“We can’t lose sight of the fact that these inmates are members of our community. The criminal justice system is more than punishment, it’s also about rehabilitation. A lot of the people who come through our jail need some help getting back on the right track. To the extent that my staff and I can help do that, we are happy to do it. Success for me is having someone leave our facility in a better place than when they came in and having the skills and tools to make better decisions so they don’t re-enter the system.”
NTC President Dr. Lori Weyers sees the college’s partnership with the jail in much the same way:
“At NTC, we believe that education is a great equalizer. By providing opportunities for individuals in jail or recently out of incarceration, we are helping individuals better their lives while positively contributing to a skilled workforce for local employers. Through the attainment of skills, our jail program graduates are able to build their confidence, which sets them on a path towards success upon their release.”
In the last year, more than 150 jail inmates have been recognized through the various programs offered by Marathon County.
And, while the successes of the program may sometimes be difficult to capture, I found the sentiment of one of the student participants, Austin Yelkin, particularly inspiring. When I asked what he learned from the various programs he had taken part in, Austin referenced the following quote from prominent American philosopher William James:
“The greatest discovery of my generation is that a human being can alter his life by altering his attitudes.”
If you’re interested in learning more about community programs at the Marathon County Jail, volunteering your time to work in any of our offerings, or to supply donations of reading material or teaching aids, please email Program Director Ronda Zastrow at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Marathon County Deputy Administrator
Lance Leonhard began his career in Marathon County government in the Office of Corporation Counsel and currently serves as the Marathon County Deputy Administrator. Lance’s career in public service has spanned more than a decade, having worked for the federal government as a law clerk on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit and for the state of Wisconsin as an Assistant District Attorney. Outside of work, you’re likely to find Lance spending time with his family, traveling, teeing off on a local golf course, or sitting around a campfire with friends. Email Lance Leonhard.
You might also like…
- Marathon County’s Community Conferencing Program :: Trained Volunteers Bringing Victims, Offenders Together
- Martin Luther King, Jr., “Day On” :: An Educational Day for Marathon County Employees
- A Day in Judge Moran’s Courtroom I Won’t Soon Forget
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