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The University of Wisconsin Oshkosh prides itself on giving students the opportunity to take their education outside of the classroom and into the community. One such internship has landed upperclassmen behind bars.

Each year, eight criminal justice majors are selected to teach a college course to inmates at Oshkosh Correctional Institution or Taycheedah Correctional Institution. For two hours a week, four pairs of student teachers work with inmates, presenting the topic of convict criminology.

“In effect, the student interns are teaching their own course whereby they develop their own syllabi, write their own exams, grade papers and grade the prisoner students,” said Stephen Richards, associate professor of criminal justice at UW Oshkosh and a leading member of the international Convict Criminology Group.

“The UW Oshkosh students have a unique opportunity to see if they like teaching, to learn about prison and prisoners, and to explore the idea of going on to graduate school.”

The program, called Inviting Convicts to College, is targeted at inmates who have an academic background. Not only does the noncredit course expose convicts to the college experience and expectations, but also it encourages them to embrace higher education by exploring the process of enrolling and applying for financial aid.

“The program becomes a get-out-of-prison plan for those few prisoners who are motivated to go to college,” Richards said.

A long way from the classroom

When UW Oshkosh senior Kiel Zillmer applied for the convict criminology internship, he was more intimidated with the idea of speaking in front of a group than a prison being the setting.

“It got a lot easier after a couple of times,” he said.

Zillmer, of Mukwonago, intends to go on to graduate school, so he chose Inviting Convicts to College as a means to fulfill the teaching assistantship requirement. But the program has given him a lot more than that.

“I can’t even tell you how valuable an experience it has been. It has changed how I view prisons and prisoners. It’s been a great learning tool,” Zillmer said, adding that the key to teaching in a prison is to leave one’s preconceived notions at the gate.

Zillmer said the most rewarding aspect of the internship is seeing some of the inmates getting accepted to universities in addition to smaller milestones, such as coming to class and knowing that his students have done their reading, are prepared and are engaged.

“The main thing I’ve learned is that prisoners are the same as you and I. Just because they get caught for something doesn’t mean they are vile monsters. Inviting them to pursue education is a way of giving them a second chance,” he said.

“There’s life after prison.”

Rehabilitation through education

Operating under the premise that the more educated an individual is, the less likely he or she is to return to prison, Inviting Convicts to College seeks to reduce recidivism by giving convicts a clear route to success.

“With a felony conviction, an individual has a hard time finding a job or a place to live. So for these prisoners who take this course and then apply and are accepted to the university, when they get out of prison, they go to the financial aid office, and their tuition is paid, and now they’re a university student,” Richards said.

Over the past four years, about half a dozen former inmates have enrolled at UW campuses after being released from prison. Richard Hendricksen, 25, of New Lisbon, Wis., is one of them. While serving two years for reckless endangerment and robbery with use of force, he signed up for Inviting Convicts to College because he was looking for something to do in the afternoons.

He now credits the program with giving him a fresh start to be something better.

“I am rewarded by the courses I take. I know that the University gives people not only the credentials, but also the tools to make an impact in whatever area of study you want,” said Hendricksen, who is a sophomore pursuing a degree in criminal justice or sociology.

After graduating, Hendricksen hopes to become a professor or an education coordinator for the Department of Corrections. In the meantime, he plans to go back to prison to teach the convict criminology course as part of the Inviting Convicts to College program.

“I have known since I was taking the course that I wanted to teach it someday. I can’t think of a better way for my life to come full circle,” he said.

A service to the community

Inviting Convicts to College builds a bridge from prison to university, a synergy that makes a lot of sense to Richards and the other supporters of the program.

“Universities and prisons serve the same population: young men and women in need of education. This collaboration between the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh and the Wisconsin Department of Corrections is an excellent example of state employees working together for a common purpose: to serve the people of Wisconsin,” Richards said.

The program provides an important service to the community without being a burden to taxpayers. The course is free for prisoners, and there is no cost to either the prisons or the University, as the textbook — “Convict Criminology,” authored by Richards — is donated by the publisher.

If Richards exhibits a fair amount of passion for the program, it is because he has an inside perspective. The fact that he is a criminology expert who spent nine years in a federal prison on a drug conviction has made him a frequent guest expert for national media, including CNN, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, MSNBC and National Public Radio.

Click here for a recent article with audio at the Chattanooga Times Free Press.

“Prisoners are invisible minorities. We come in all colors, and you don’t know who we are,” Richards said. “And while it’s illegal to discriminate against age, race or religion, it is legal to discriminate against convicted felons.

“Convicts need to go to college and complete at least a bachelor’s degree as a way to redeem themselves and to prepare themselves for the job market.”