MADISON, Wis. - An effort to expand higher education offerings for state prison inmates is taking shape under interim University of Wisconsin President Tommy Thompson, who oversaw the largest expansion of prisons in the state's history during his 14 years as governor.
Thompson discussed the plan during a meeting Monday with members of Gov. Tony Evers' Cabinet. He again expressed regret for overseeing the growth in prisons when he served as governor from 1987 until 2001, the Wisconsin State Journal reported.
"I built too many prisons," said Thompson, a Republican. "I think we need to be much more interested in rehabilitation."
The Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. late last year awarded the University of Wisconsin System and the Department of Corrections a $5.7 million grant to expand college options for inmates. The grant provides a much-needed boost for the project, which Republicans declined to fund in the state budget passed last summer.
The UW System's pilot program for prison inmates will target five campuses: Madison, Green Bay, Milwaukee, Parkside and Oshkosh.
Staff will spend much of the next year continuing the planning process, said UW official Peter Moreno, who is leading the project. There’s a lot to be ironed out, such as deciding which courses and programs to offer, developing an adequate technology infrastructure, building up advising services and finding physical space within prisons for classes. The hope is to have a degree program up and running by the fall of 2023. The grant expires at the end of 2024.
About 70% of the 20,000 people in Wisconsin’s prisons have completed high school or have an equivalency diploma.
The state prison system already offers some two-year associate degree programs with technical colleges, as well as individual courses through a partnership with UW-Madison’s Odyssey Beyond Bars, which this semester expanded from being offered at one correctional facility to four. But the agency generally lacks bachelor’s degree completion programs, Moreno said.
Thompson discussed the project ahead of his March 18 departure as interim UW president. Thompson, 80, suggested his next move would be in the private sector, ruled out retirement, and kept open the longshot possibility of running for governor again.