Samara Kalk Derby | Wisconsin State Journal
David Tatro gave a commencement speech at Madison College Tuesday morning that had the two people who spoke after him marveling.
One of them was Department of Corrections Secretary Kevin Carr, who said he listens to a lot of graduation speeches and added that Tatro’s was “truly one of the best I’ve heard.”
The other was Madison College President Jack E. Daniels III, who said, “following Secretary Carr is a difficult task, but there’s nothing more difficult than following Mr. Tatro. I have never heard a graduation speech as sensitive, thought-provoking and encouraging.”
Daniels said he knew Tatro had just completed a program through the college’s Electrical Maintenance Academy, “but I think I need a speechwriter. And I think that I need to have a conversation with you.”
While this commencement had everything in common with a typical graduation – caps, gowns, tassels, handshakes and the handing out of certificates – the nine men who graduated Tuesday were prison inmates who had just completed the 16-week, 16-credit Reentry program at Madison College’s Truax campus.
The students, six from Oregon Correctional Center and three from Thomson Correctional Center, started the program in August in basic industrial power and electrical maintenance. The goal was to give the men skills that will make them less likely to reoffend and help them get jobs upon release that pay a livable wage.
Tatro, 40, said afterward that he’s been incarcerated at the Thompson Correctional Center in Deerfield for the past six months after a fifth drunken-driving conviction and has about a year left on his sentence.
He said he’s focused in that time on improving himself any way that he can. A large part of that self-improvement cane through the Reentry program.
“Because we are in prison, some people may view us as broken,” Tatro said in his speech before a room full of Madison College staff, representatives from the Department of Corrections, family and friends.
“Perhaps we are,” he said. “Then let’s approach that as an industrial maintenance technician: When a machine breaks down, you don’t just discard it. You don’t just trash it, you fix it. You break out your digital multimeter and you troubleshoot. You run diagnostics on all the intricate little parts that make it operate and pinpoint the problem, and you fix the problem. You provide maintenance.”
Tatro said he used that analogy to represent his own rehabilitation and that of the other inmates.
“The Reentry program has helped us troubleshoot our own personal breakdowns and apply personal maintenance to ourselves to improve ourselves, to be more effective members of society and thriving operators of our lives,” he said.
Tatro, who graduated from Lodi High School and has lived in Madison, got emotional when he gave thanks to all the people who made the graduation possible.
He said afterward that he got transferred from the John C. Burke Correctional Center in Waupun to Thompson Correctional Center to be closer to his family in the area.
Tatro said he recognized his alcoholism early in his life and tried to address it before he began getting incarcerated. He said he’s tried plenty of treatments and medicines to help counteract the effects of addiction.
“I know that it’s a lifelong disease that affects so many people, and especially in the state of Wisconsin, where alcohol use is so prevalent,” he said.
While incarcerated, he’s examined his poor choices, he said, but also what led to those choices, “namely my addiction and maybe any other behavioral issues.”
Jamie Reinart, program manager for Madison College’s Center for Reentry Education, said the program began in 2016. It was held on campus this year for the first time since 2019, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
It’s a partnership between Madison College, the state Department of ?Corrections, and the Workforce Development Board of South Central Wisconsin.
Reinart said both the Oregon and Thompson centers are minimum-security prisons. She said nearby Oakhill Correctional Institute in Oregon is also a minimum-security prison, but it’s secure, meaning it has a fence and inmates typically don’t leave for work or school.
She said that Madison College, also known as Madison Area Technical College, has programming at Oakhill, too, but it brings the necessary equipment into the prison to teach classes on-site.
Madison College provides the training, the Department of Corrections pays for the cost of instruction and materials through a contract with the college, and the Workforce Development Board helps students get jobs. the day before the ceremony, the board brought in potential employers for face-to-face interviews with inmates.
‘Outlook is good’
Carr said it’s not lost on him that about 95% of the people who enter Wisconsin’s prison system will return to their communities.
“They come to the Department of Corrections as punishment, not for punishment,” Carr said. “Once they’re with us, I firmly believe it’s our job to get them home in better shape than when they came to us. While we can offer opportunities, it’s important that they accept them. Graduates, you’ve not only accepted those opportunities, but you’ve made the most of them.”
Reinart said Tuesday’s graduates had an average grade point average of 3.94. Five graduated with a perfect 4.0, she said. “It’s pretty darn amazing.”
Tatro said after the ceremony that he hasn’t learned his final GPA, but he put in as much effort, if not more, than he did with his previous primary and secondary education.
The skills he learned through the Reentry program, Tatro said, will help him be more successful when he gets released. He said he and his fellow inmates had promising interviews Monday with some local employers. “The outlook is good,” he said.
In terms of how he pulled off such a powerful commencement speech, Tatro credits his bachelor’s degree in journalism and public relations from UW – Whitewater. He said he’s also had some experience with script-writing.
He said he was touched by Daniels’ remarks. The Madison College president said he’d be interested in hiring Tatro as a speechwriter. “I would definitely be open and available for that kind of position,” Tatro said.