Kayla Huynh | The Cap Times

Following 16 weeks of electrical maintenance and industrial power courses, nine incarcerated students received technical diplomas from Madison College Tuesday morning.

The Reentry Program – a partnership between Madison College, the Department of Corrections and the Workforce Development Board of South Central Wisconsin – allows incarcerated individuals to earn college credits and secure jobs after graduation.

“Started from the bottom, now we’re here. We did it!” said student speaker David Tatro, prompting cheers from the audience at Madison College. “Thanks to this program, we have the empowering skills to succeed.”

Donning blue caps and gowns, the students from Thompson Correctional Center and Oregon Correctional Center also wore white cords symbolizing the high honors they accomplished. According to Jamie Reinart, an education and program training liaison at Madison College, the group achieved an average GPA of 3.94 for the 16 credits they completed.

“They come eager to learn every day,” Reinart said in remarks to the crowd. “Their assignments are always completed, they’re usually asking for additional work besides the curriculum and, often, they bring questions that sometimes even stump the instructors.”

Throughout their coursework, Tatro said the students handled electrical capacitors, studied magnetic lines of flux and solved plenty of mathematical problems.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, this year marked the first time Madison College brought incarcerated students on campus for the electrical maintenance academy since 2019.

“There were times we were literally dripping with learning – our hands, countertops and floors covered in hydraulic oil,” Tatro recalled. “And thanks to our learned safety protocols, no one slipped or fell.”

It isn’t the first time Tatro has received a degree. In 2009, before he was incarcerated, he graduated from the University of Wisconsin – Whitewater with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and public relations. His love for writing showed in his speech, which received a standing ovation from his classmates and others in the audience.

The Madison College program, he said, helped ensure he wasn’t wasting time away in prison and has prepared him for release next year. It also reinvigorated his passion for learning and often caused him to “nerd out in class.”

“I’m immensely grateful for this entire opportunity, and most importantly, the simple yet immeasurably valuable and rewarding opportunity to learn,” he said. “In a correctional center, you can work out in the weight room every day, but flexing your brain with that same intensity and repetition can be a challenge.”

Overcoming that feat can prove fruitful, DOC Secretary Kevin Carr told the audience.

He said nearly all people incarcerated in Wisconsin correctional institutions will eventually return to their communities. Among those individuals, he added, prisoners who complete career and technical education programs experience lower arrest, reincarceration, reconviction and recidivism rates.

Additional DOC data from 2015 to 2021 show over 82% of prisoners who participated in career and technical education programs landed a job after release.

Though past life choices might have resulted int he students’ incarceration, Tatro said, the program taught them to approach life as technicians.

“Some people may view us as broken – perhaps we are,” he said. But like any industrial maintenance technician, they’ve learned to fix problems rather than discard them.

“That analogy represents our own rehabilitation,” he said. “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.”

Upon release, Tatro said he hopes to explore the electrical industry and eventually return to a career in the media and public relations field. He concluded his remarks by telling his peers to remember one last formula, a quote he saw at Thompson Correctional Center.

“Success doesn’t come from what you do occasionally,” he said. “It comes from what you do consistently.”

At the end of the ceremony, the nine graduates turned their tassels from right to left. And in one last hurrah, they all threw their graduation caps into the air.