Behind the gray walls of the Marathon County Jail, inmates are finding a ray of hope in a unique program that offers practical skills and an opportunity for a new career.
Jail inmates use this virtual welder—the same used in classrooms—to learn beginning welding skills that could be used to help secure a new career.
The program, now in its second year, allows inmates to complete a three-credit, 81-hour certificate from Northcentral Technical College in weld print reading and virtual welding. The combined courses are the first steps toward a technical diploma and a chance for a financially rewarding career.
The inmates enrolled in the courses won’t be able to weld right away, but they could get hired on the job floor, says Darren Ackley, dean of the NTC School of Applied Technology and Engineering.
Participants are chosen by jail staff based on criteria that includes a desire to further their education and positive behavioral habits. So far 35 inmates enrolled and 31 completed the program. Nearly all of those who did not complete the program were either transferred to other facilities or given early release, says Sandra LaDu-Ives, administrator of the Marathon County Jail.
“Inmates like to do something with their time, and this is a great way for them to use that time to their advantage,” LaDu-Ives says. “They have something tangible at the end of the program that could improve their lives.”
Welding jobs are in high demand, with an average starting salary of more than $36,000, according to NTC statistics.
The program began in spring 2015, initially through grant funding secured largely by Sen. Jerry Petrowski (R-Marathon) and involved purchasing a virtual welder for use at the jail.
Petrowski says the best thing about the program is that it provides people with the immediate chance to get on a path toward employment and a direct connection to a job. “Giving people that type of opportunity will help them choose a better path for their lives and reduce recidivism, which is a benefit to the entire community,” Petrowski says.
After the initial grant was exhausted, donations from local businesses has kept the program afloat for now. The virtual welder in the jail is the same as the one used in the traditional classroom, though inmates are taught on cardboard rather than metal. Tuition is free for the inmates.
Ackley credits much of the program’s success to instructor Adam Zogata, who in May was awarded the Robert C. Altman Award for Educational Excellence. The award is given for leadership, professional growth both inside and outside the classroom and community involvement.
“Adam is an incredible teacher who is perfect for this kind of program,” Ackley says. “He’s kind of like a life coach for the students, and he’s gotten a number of letters from former inmates who say the program helped turn their life around.”
Those letters show how life-changing education can be, he says.
So far, none of the students has enrolled in NTC’s full welding program after being released from jail, though Ackley remains hopeful that some eventually will. “It’s the carrot at the end of the stick,” Ackley says. “This could be significant for [the inmates] and could be life-changing.”
LaDu-Ives considers the program a success and says there have been zero complaints or problems since it began in spring 2015. The jail does not track whether inmates who complete the program find jobs in the industry or commit new crimes elsewhere. But they do know that inmates who participated have been enthusiastic and none have returned to jail.
While LaDu-Ives would like to see additional NTC courses for inmates, limited space at the jail makes that unlikely, she says. NTC does offer basic adult education courses for inmates such as math, financial literacy, career guidance and help in obtaining a GED. The welding program is the first occupational training at the jail.
“We’re doing our best, with the space we have, to offer the best possible experience for our inmates and meeting their educational needs,” LaDu-Ives says. “When we can offer new opportunities and hope, everyone wins.”