Fifteen inmates at the Redgranite Correctional Institution in Milwaukee are refurbishing wheelchairs that are sold at a reduced price to the people who need them most. The program not only provides technical skills to the inmates, but for some, like Willie Williams, it provides a way to give back.
Williams is serving 18 years in prison for armed robbery.
“I look at my life and it’s been take, take, take and this is a way of giving back,” said Williams. “It’s rewarding and it gives me hope that I’ll have something to look forward to when I get out.”
The difference the inmates are making is substantial. Last year alone, nearly 1,800 wheelchairs were dropped off at the prison. Some were used for spare parts, but a total of about 1,000 shipped back out as perfect, working wheelchairs.
The program has grown with its success. Originally five inmates were hired for the program, and now the number has reached fifteen. The inmates earn between $0.35 and $1.00 an hour for the work they do, but the return on investment is much more than that.
“I’ve had people who told me ‘all I’ve ever done is do drugs and rob people,'” industries specialist Christine Trinrud said. “You can see the work here is a self-esteem builder. They get skills that will help them get a job.”
“It’s a positive experience for the inmates. It teaches them mechanical and electrical skills. It gives them real-life experience and for some of them, they’ve never had real employment experience,” added Interim Warden Jim Schwochert.
The jobs are in demand. There are currently 50 inmates that have applied for the program. One of the requirements is that the inmate must have a high-school diploma or GED in addition to an outstanding institution-adjustment record.
The prison is currently working on 70 manual wheelchairs that will be used by the Old Glory Honor Flight organization. The organization provides World War II veterans daily trips from the Outagamie County Regional Airport to Washington, DC. The chairs are used to get the veterans around the nation’s capital.
IndependenceFirst Mobility Stores take care dropping off and picking up the chairs at the prison each week. According to the store’s director, Julie Schulz, anyone can purchase a chair, regardless of income.
“When the wheelchairs are coming back, they’re in tip-top shape. In many cases you can compare them to a new piece,” Schulz said.
Mike Ayers is a 49-year-old man from Tennessee, who is serving a 12-year sentence for robbing a credit union and attempting to rob a gas station. His grandparents were in good health three-and-a- half years ago when he was incarcerated. He recently learned his grandfather needed a wheelchair to get around.
“It’s nice knowing I’m doing work that will help people like my grandpa,” Ayers said, adding, “It’s the first time I found something I love to do. This is something I can bring with me out in the world. My hope is the public understands there’s good guys in here who made bad choices.”
The program is funded by Badger State Industries, Wisconsin’s prison industry program, and government grant money for assistive technology.