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In Wisconsin, First-of-its-Kind Facility Prepares People Inside Prison for Employment

By The Council of State Government Justice Center Staff

The significance of employment for people returning to their communities from incarceration is well known; however, jobs are not always easy to find. Many state corrections departments face challenges not only equipping people with the technical skills necessary for employment, but also with helping them find and secure job opportunities. With this in mind, Wisconsin’s Department of Corrections (WI DOC) and Department of Workforce Development are aiming to tackle these issues before people even complete their sentences.

In-house job center imageIn November 2018, WI DOC’s Oakhill Correctional Institution (OCI) opened an in-house job center (pictured right) to help people who are incarcerated prepare for employment after they reenter the community. The first of its kind in a WI state facility, the job center provides an opportunity for people to build resumes and send them to potential employers, apply for jobs, and set up interviews—all before their release date. This preparation is a key part of ensuring a person’s successful reentry and, consequently, lessening his or her chances of reoffending.

The OCI job center’s potential hasn’t gone unrecognized by state officials. Speaking at the center’s opening celebration, former Wisconsin Lieutenant Governor Rebecca Kleefisch heralded its efforts in preparing this willing, yet often overlooked, population to connect with employers in need of qualified workers. “You’ve got to really look outside the box and you’ve got to have an open mind with your human resources strategy,” she said. “In many cases, a lot of folks [incarcerated] here at Oakhill and across our corrections department make really good potential employees.”

Furthering its commitment to reducing recidivism and improving employment outcomes for people returning to the community from incarceration, WI DOC is also a leading partner in Milwaukee County’s Integrated Reentry and Employment Strategies (IRES) pilot project. One of two sites selected by The Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center, with support from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance, the pilot project sought to test the innovative strategies outlined in the IRES white paper that aim to lower recidivism and increase employment by targeting resources based on an assessment-driven referral process.

Milwaukee County’s project—which included OCI, among other correctional facilities—was led by WI DOC and the county’s workforce development board, Employ Milwaukee. Along with CSG Justice Center staff, WI DOC and Employ Milwaukee developed and implemented a framework that helps probation and parole agents match people returning to the county from state correctional facilities with appropriate community-based reentry programs and workforce development services after release, based on their individual risks and needs. To do so, pilot project staff analyzed participants’ risk and job-readiness profiles, gauged the landscape of workforce agencies in the county, and identified WI DOC processes for assessing both the criminogenic risk and job readiness of people at admission to prison and upon release as well as mechanisms for connecting them to appropriate workforce services upon release. For more information, see the IRES pilot project home page.