Ideas to Impact Blog

Commitment to the Fundamental Institutions of Civil Society That Cultivate Individuals Capable of Self-Governance

We are not just another number or statistic. We are not just our worst mistake. . . We are brothers, sons, uncles, and fathers. We are people who are loved and who love. . . We are people who seek forgiveness. We are people who learn from their mistakes.

wisconsin-inmate-education-association-inc_processed_215c32df2fda0cc9b0d1776459e50d2607abe458602dd1d2463e66c71bf1621b_logoThe Bradley Impact Fund didn’t just request permission to publish August White’s remarkable 2021 address to his fellow Trinity College graduates and to the governor and other dignitaries because of its eloquence. Though it was indeed eloquent and an excellent fit for our annual Words of Impact feature.

We also published White’s speech because of the unusual venue in which it was given—Waupun Correctional Extension, a maximum-level security prison some thirty miles northwest of Milwaukee.

In July 2021, Wisconsin Inmate Education Association’s (WIEA) inaugural class of twenty students graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Biblical studies with a minor in psychology. For the first time in Trinity International University’s 124-year history, every single student graduated with honors.

Among the many fascinating aspects of WIEA’s Operation Transformation is that several of its students may never see the outside of the prison due to their length of sentence. Yet, these men are finding hope and purpose, having a positive impact on the inmates around them while serving as ministers or in other roles. Some graduates are on course to re-enter society with an entirely new outlook and prospects.

In Spring 2023, the Trinity campus moved to Fox Lake Correctional, a medium-level security facility west of Waupun. Pastor Robin Knoll and students have been edified by the response from officers in the facility, who regularly comment on how diligent the students are. One officer even commented on how polite and courteous students are compared with their peers in the general population. Mr. Knoll hastens to add that as welcome as such comments are, the goal isn’t to help students be more polite—the goal is a transformation of spirit and restoration of hope. That such a transformation is evident in students’ behavior is a welcome sign of the deeper work in progress.

WIEA’s Operation Transformation is based in part on a seminary launched in New York’s Angola Prison—a program that has been thoroughly studied by researchers with Baylor University, who found that:

  • Significant change was achieved not through fear of punishment, but through embrace of an alternative identity that celebrates right behavior for the right reasons.

  • Graduates and students report lower levels of disciplinary convictions, and participation in spiritual and morality related conversations was also related to lower levels of misconduct.

  • Misconduct among inmates who participated in the program tended to decline or remain low over time compared to those who did not.

Baylor’s researchers noted their surprise at many of these findings, given that most of the population studied had no prospect of returning to their community soon or ever.

Perhaps not often considered, prisons are in fact among civil society’s vital institutions. How they operate and the outcomes of those who return to society matter. Volumes have been written on the revolving door between America’s most marginalized communities and prison, leaving many with the impression that the current corrections culture may be worsening many problems these facilities are intended to mitigate.

With such innovative and promising efforts as seen with WIEA, however, we see reason for hope. Changemakers committed to proclaiming God’s Word and modeling Christian virtue in an environment bereft of hope and trust can change a facility’s culture. The Impact Fund community will continue watching developments at WIEA closely, including the possibility of bringing its model to other facilities.

Enriching civil society is a core value of the Bradley Impact Fund, and that is exactly what WIEA is doing through their work with incarcerated individuals.

Wisconsin Inmate Education Association