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The Frustrating Mission of Putting Inmates to Work

Advocating for the Felmers O. Chaney Correctional Center’s programming

Jan. 8, 2009
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Even in a good job market, the most difficult to employ are those with a criminal record and a minimal employment history.And if you’re a black male in Wisconsin with a criminal record, you have only a 5% chance of getting a callback from an employer when searching for a job.

So when the Felmers O. Chaney Correctional Center was opened in 2000, at 30th and Hadley streets, its mission to help soon-to-be-released inmates find work was thought to be one solution to a difficult problem. The facility would house only those inmates who would benefit most from comprehensive support services that would help them find jobs before they are released. The idea was that these work experiences would help inmates in their transition after incarceration and prevent newly released inmates from returning to a life of crime.

Now, almost nine years later, that original mission is in dispute. While the Department of Corrections (DOC) maintains that work-support programming is being offered to inmates at acceptable levels, the center’s community advisory board argues that services for inmates have diminished at the Chaney facility. The board also argues that the DOC has changed the designation of the facility from a pre-release center to a minimum-security prison, which reflects the diminished services and limited programming flexibility.

As a result of these changes, according to an April 2008 advisory board report, only 57 of 107 Chaney inmates were on full-time work release.

Making the Effort?

Gary Davis was the first superintendent of the Chaney Center and now serves on the community advisory board. He said that “there’s no magic wand” that will connect inmates to jobs, but the DOC and Chaney staff should at least demonstrate that efforts are being made to do so.

“If it’s impossible to [secure employment for inmates] because of the economic times we’re in right now, then the facility should be able to demonstrate at least its efforts in putting as many people in situations where they get interviewed and be considered for any and all employment, from the most menial labor to the jobs that would be considered more substantial,” Davis said. “You need to start developing those types of employment histories or community service experiences.”

John Dipko, spokesman for the DOC, said that appropriate work-support services are in place, even if jobs aren’t readily available. “We have increased the hours of community service performed by the Chaney inmates,” Dipko said.

As we went to press, the DOC and the executive committee of the Felmers O. Chaney Correctional Center Community Advisory Board were planning to meet in Madison. After negotiating over the agenda for the meeting, the DOC agreed to a more detailed agenda put forward by the advisory board, which included the mission of a pre-release center vs. a minimum-security prison; which inmates are eligible to stay at Chaney; public transportation for inmates; and inmate length of stay at Chaney.

Community advisory board chair R.L. McNeely said on Tuesday that he hoped the DOC would recognize “the collaborative spirit of the board” at the meeting and begin rebuilding a productive dialogue. “The board is taking our responsibility very seriously,” McNeely said.

Promises to the Community

The board’s criticism of the Chaney facility is especially stinging, because the board’s existence was essential to generating community support for the center. Named for former Urban League and local NAACP President Felmers O. Chaney, the facility was established as a state-of-the-art, forward-thinking pre-release facility that would help nonviolent offenders make a successful transition to independence upon release. It was the product of the merger of the Abode and St. John’s Correctional Center, and most inmates are from Milwaukee. To ensure the safety of the community, the inmates are carefully screened and assessed; no sexual offenders would be allowed to stay at the facility.

The DOC needed the community’s support to build the facility, so it promised nearby civic and neighborhood groups that a strong community advisory board would be involved in oversight of the facility.

Davis said that when the Chaney Center first opened, it engaged inmates in the community by allowing them to go on job interviews and to work sites, meet with relatives, go to a house of worship, get their hair cut, recover their driver’s licenses and other documents, take educational courses and exams, and provide community services. “We provided a constructive re-entry strategy,” Davis said. “We were putting people to work with less-than-stellar records.”

But that has changed, board members argue. The April 2008 memo stated that “almost all of the re-integration mechanisms […] have been eliminated, or sharply constrained, since 2002/03, thereby adversely affecting Chaney’s ability to accomplish its expressly stated mission while also amounting to a reneging on the promises DOC made both to community groups and to individuals in order to enlist community support for building the prison.”

McNeely said the result has been detrimental to the inmates and the wider community. He is concerned that sexual offenders are now being allowed to stay at the Chaney Center, although sexual predators are still banned. He argued that inmates aren’t staying at Chaney long enough to absorb the programming that is offered to them. And he says DOC staff in Madison isn’t responsive to the board’s concerns and suggestions.

“A lot of things are happening there to frustrate the mission the DOC agreed to in order to get community support to build the prison,” McNeely said.

Davis said the DOC has “retrenched a bit” in allowing inmates to become part of the community. Inmates oftentimes must wear prison garb when in public, instead of civilian clothing, and they are transported in vans instead of taking the bus, which limits the number of inmates who are allowed to travel in the city.

The DOC’s Dipko said there is still a “strong work-release component” at Chaney, but that DOC Secretary Rick Raemisch understood the concerns of the board. “He values the advisory role that the board has and he’s looking forward to meeting with them this week,” Dipko said.

What’s your take? Write: editor@shepex.com or comment on this story online at www.expressmilwaukee.com.


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