“This one class opened up so many doors.”

Every day, people are released from prison and return to communities across the state to rebuild their lives. Wisconsin has an incarceration rate of 676 per 100,000 people and, notably, imprisons Black men at a higher rate than any other state in America. For all returning people, the barriers they face are overwhelming and can lead to high rates of re-arrest. In this series, we are featuring people who have been incarcerated or work within the prison system, whose stories focus on the transition from prison to community, and illustrate the value for individuals and communities that comes with investing in their re-entry.  Jaime Etheridge is one of five people featured in this series. 

I have been incarcerated nine times. My first time in county jail I was eighteen. What brought me in and out of incarceration was addiction, mostly Drugs.

Photo courtesy of Jaime Etheridge

Jaime Etheridge | West Bend, WI

I started drinking when I was young, and one thing led to another. Eventually, I developed a disastrous addiction problem. My first stint, I was there to do the time that the judge gave me, and then I could go home. I went straight to treatment, but I kept messing up and had to go back.

Anything I have been involved with that is negative, my addiction was behind it. If I didn’t have an addiction in my life, I wouldn’t have a criminal record. 

I can’t blame it on my raising. During my sophomore year in high school, I was in Tennessee living with my dad, and I was falling behind in school. I missed a lot of school and my grades fell, so I was homeschooled. I should have kept my butt in school and not acted up. Homeschooling was supposed to be an opportunity for me to take a year and get caught up for my senior year. But that didn’t happen. I ended up turning eighteen and didn’t go back to school.   

When I was twenty-four the recession hit, and nobody could get a job doing anything. I didn’t have a high school education, so I took a job climbing cell towers. I traveled across the United States, from Boston to Sacramento, installing cell phone lines. Working in this field gave me a taste for a better life. I was brought up pretty good, so I wanted better for myself and my children. 

I was raised that if you want a better life you got to work. So going to college was something that always lingered in the back of my mind. When I was in OakHill Correctional Facility, I got my High School Equivalency Diploma.  And as soon as I was done with that, I just wanted more.  

I saw a poster board describing a University of Wisconsin writing class. It grabbed my attention and I thought, ‘this is amazing.’ I just knew it would have the best teaching. I didn’t even second guess it and filled out the form. I had an interview with the teacher, Kevin Mullen, and I wanted to make it perfect. I felt a little shaky, but speaking with Kevin was just so comfortable. There were so many people he could have picked for the class, and when I was picked I just knew that this was the beginning. 

From day one, I’m sitting in the class with people that had the same experiences as me. We are writing poems and stories. When I looked to my right and looked to my left, the people on both sides of me shared my feelings. We were all kind of tense. At first I worried, ‘What do I write?’  Mr. Mullen started breaking it down and made it seem so simple. After the first class, I couldn’t wait until the next week to be sitting there again. I could not wait to go over the other guys’ stories. Every one of us had that strong desire to do something different than what we were doing inside the prison and before prison. 

It’s hard when you get out. If you’ve got a felony, you’re treated like you are the worst thing known to man. Even if you come out of prison a stronger, more developed person, society will beat you down. I did the crime, I served my time. I accepted it. But when you get people telling you, ‘You’re a piece of garbage,’ then you feel like it. You feel like maybe prison is where I belong. I don’t need to hear, ‘You’re garbage.’ I need to hear, “You could do better; you could do something different.’  We need opportunities to be successful.

Right now, education is my chance. I don’t want my outcome to be a grave or a prison cell. The writing class was amazing; this one class opened up so many doors. I’m going to Milwaukee Technical College this fall. I’m completely enrolled—I got my financial aid, and my classes are all set up. I am going to get my associate’s degree in business management. Had it not been for that UW class, I wouldn’t even be talking about college. If you’re reading this and are battling addiction, or maybe did some things in your past you are not happy with, leave that in the past. You can change. You can be whatever you want to be and live your life. More people coming out of prison need this kind of opportunity and focus. 

I learned that I was strong enough to become something else besides what I thought I was. I had accepted that maybe this is my life. But what if it wasn’t. What if there was more for me? The writing class at Oak Hill helped me figure out that I can succeed in this, and I’m going to move forward.

Jaime’s story was produced by Wisconsin Poet Laurette Dasha Kelly Hamilton and Jen Rubin. It is part of Love Wisconsin’s series on communitiy re-entry after incarceration.

This series was funded by the “Why it Matters: Civic and Electoral Participation” initiative, administered by the Federation of State Humanities Councils and funded by Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Prison education is worth the investment. People who complete college coursework while incarcerated are more likely to be self-sufficient upon re-entry and less likely to return to prison.  A 2014 study by the Rand Corporation found that inmates participating in prison education programs had a 43 percent lower chance of going back to prison after being released. It also found that the odds of getting a job after being released was 13 percent higher for those that took classes while incarcerated.   

(Photo of Carl Lewis taken by Chris Bacarella during the Odyssey Beyond Bars writing class at Oakhill Correctional Facility.) 

Jaime’s writing class was through Odyssey Beyond Bars, a UW-Madison course for students incarcerated at Oakhill Correctional Facilities. You can learn more about the course in this article, ‘Writing a New Future.’ Here and here are stories of graduates of the Odyssey Beyond Bars writing class and the impact it had on their lives.

More than half of formerly incarcerated individuals have just a high school diploma or GED, and another quarter have no high school credential at all, according to a 2018 report from the Prison Policy Initiative. Just 4% have a college degree.

(Photo taken by Chris Bacarella during the Odyssey Beyond Bars writing class at Oakhill Correctional Facility.) 

Wisconsin has an incarceration rate of 676 per 100,000 people (including prisons, jails, immigration detention, and juvenile justice facilities). You can find the complete Wisconsin profile here.

The number of people impacted by county and city jails in Wisconsin is much larger than the graph above would suggest, because people cycle through local jails relatively quickly.

This chart was taken from Prison Policy Initiative report, ‘Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2020’. To learn more about who is incarcerated in Wisconsin, you can read the 2019 Profile of Persons in Our Care report from the Department of Corrections.

Wisconsin Watch examined how convictions bar many people from jobs. Since people of color in Wisconsin have higher incarceration rates than whites, many jobs and opportunities remain out of reach for them. 

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