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Young men get job training while behind bars

By Rachel Kubik

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    RACINE, Wisconsin (The Journal Times) — Dabrion Whitehead, 22, of Milwaukee, has dreams of becoming a barber.

He’s been incarcerated at the Racine Youthful Offender Correctional Facility since 2017 when he was involved in a high-speed chase in Fond du Lac with a stolen vehicle.

Thanks to a new jobs lab at the incarceration facility for young men ages 18-24, he has a greater opportunity to get a job and has goals that don’t involve going back to crime, he said. He hopes to finish school once he is out of RYOCF. He expects to be discharged Dec. 21.

“I really grew here, like being here helped me develop more,” Whitehead said. “I just really expanded my mind, I found myself here basically. It’s a nice experience for me, like some people would take this time and be sad, when I took this time to advance myself and expand my mind.”

Staff at the Racine Youthful Offender Correctional Facility has worked for a while to help change inmates’ lives for the better so they don’t get out of jail only to commit more crimes and come back. Now, staff have the help of three new initiatives implemented within the last year.

A new mobile Mechatronics Lab at RYOCF, 1501 Albert St., pairs inmates with Gateway Technical College instructors to teach them some tools of the trade. The jobs lab, a Department of Corrections and Department of Workforce Development collaboration, allows inmates to get a head start on their job search. They create a Job Center of Wisconsin account, and apply and interview for jobs before they return to their community. A music studio helps inmates explore their passions.

The job center has been around for about two months, and the mechatronics lab has been around for about half-a-year. The music room was finished last year.

Many ways to learn Mechatronics, also called mechatronics engineering, is an interdisciplinary branch of engineering that focuses on the integration of mechanical, electronic and electrical engineering systems, and also includes a combination of robotics, electronics, computer science, telecommunications, systems, control and product engineering.

Several southeast Wisconsin businesses, including Snap-On Incorporated, Nestle, GA Precision Manufacturing and Intech Medical sent representatives to RYOCF on Thursday to join DOC Secretary Kevin Carr and DWD Secretary-Designee Amy Pechacek in viewing the work done by the young men in the institution’s new mobile Mechatronics Lab.

These men are the first group to use the Mechatronics Lab. They have been receiving instruction in the lab from Gateway Technical College and about 20 men will earn their certification through the college in a graduation ceremony set for Tuesday.

The secretaries and the employers viewed the students’ final projects and saw what they’ve learned, toured the Mechatronics Lab and visited the jobs lab.

Making it happen RYOCF Warden Je’Leslie Taylor collaborated with the technical school and other organizations to make these efforts happen.

Taylor said she has worked since becoming deputy warden in 2017 and warden in 2019 to lower recidivism rates, and keep the young men from returning back to correctional facilities.

Besides her, on staff are correctional officers, sergeants, social workers, psychologists, treatment specialists, teachers, administration and “a plethora of staff that are devoted to making a change,” Taylor said. The young men “didn’t have positive role models … so when they come here, we have to help them build trust, and hopefully we’ll help them build confidence in themselves to believe that they can be successful on an open environment.”

Taylor said those at RYOCF are not treated as typical prisoners to be punished, but rather as a person who can be taught how to heal from past trauma, provided resources and education.

“You have to listen to their stories,” Taylor said. “Each young man here has a story, and you have to be able to understand it, take the time to listen to their story of where they come from, why they behave the way they do, what has occurred in their life.”

Keeping the young men busy is also important, Taylor said, which is a reason why RYOCF has the new music studio, complete with a mural painted by inmates. The music studio was donated by two-time NBA All-Star Caron Butler, a Racine native who spent time behind bars as a teenager and is now a coach for the Miami Heat, and retired Racine Police Chief Art Howell, Taylor said.

“Our young men can draw, they can write songs, they have so much talent,” Taylor said. “You just gotta pull it out of them, and they flourish.”

‘A new environment’ Lashawn Franklin, 21, of Racine, was found guilty in 2017 of first-degree recklessly endangering safety, attempted armed robbery and bail jumping. He was in the Mechatronics Lab Thursday and said he’s been enjoying learning a new trade.

“We’re building a new environment so we don’t have to go back to the streets,” Franklin said. He plans to further pursue classes at Gateway Technical College.

Tyler Wells, 24, of Oshkosh, admitted he made some poor past decisions.

Wells was found guilty in several cases from 2017-2020 of possession of amphetamine, attempted robbery with use of force, possession of narcotic drugs and possession of cocaine.

However, he said being in the Mechatronics Lab changed his “whole mind frame” and gave him hope for the future.

“This is the first thing I accomplished in my adult life that I can be proud of,” he said of his upcoming graduation.

After that, once discharged from RYOCF in potentially May, he plans to apply for jobs or apprenticeships. He hopes to one day earn a bachelor’s degree or associate’s degree.

Taylor said now that her past ideas have come to fruition and she’s seeing positive changes occurring, she’s thankful and humbled.

“I’m honored and grateful for the staff here, because they make it happen,” Taylor said. “Every single last person, this would not happen without them at RYOCF.”

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