No walls, guard towers, or barbed wire: A look inside Oneida County's state prisonSubmitted: 10/01/2016

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LAKE TOMAHAWK - Neither Marcus Chavous nor Mike Oshefsky wears shackles and chains around the McNaughton Correctional Center in Lake Tomahawk.

But both are felons with troubled pasts.

Chavous had a drug problem.

"I relapsed and robbed a place," Chavous said. "It wasn't my best thinking, but that's what happened."

Oshefsky struggled with alcohol.

"I'm a nine-time drunk driver," he said. "I've failed, to this point, in the sense of coming back and being a statistic."

Those stories fit in with the inmate population at McNaughton, one of the facilities in Wisconsin's state prison system.

"We've got people ranging from property crimes up through homicide," said McNaughton Superintendent Brad Kosbab.

Kosbab oversees Chavous, Oshefsky, and about 100 more inmates at McNaughton, in addition to the facility's staff.

Perched on picturesque Little Tomahawk Lake, McNaughton is run by the state Department of Corrections. But it doesn't look much like a traditional prison.

"I'm like, 'Wow,'" Chavous said of arriving at McNaughton. "This is really a slice of heaven. I'm not ready to go there yet, but this is a slice of heaven here."

Instead of fences or barbed wire, a simple sign reading "Center Limit" marks the edge of the grounds. It's simple. Beyond the sign is "out-of-bounds."

"It does catch a lot of people off-guard, because most of the time, when people think of a prison, they think of the walls, and the guard towers, and the big lights and things," Kosbab said. "We really don't have any of that."

Few inmates ever attempt an escape from McNaughton. The facility's superintendent says that's true, for one, because it's such a nice standard of living compared to other prisons.

Here, inmates are nearing the end of their incarceration sentences. Many have spent years or decades in the prison system, and are within a year or two of release.

"You come to a place like this, you have a sense, a feeling that you've kind of earned it," Oshefsky said.

"It's a sense of humanity," said Chavous. "I feel like more of a human being when I'm here."

Unlike prisons with heightened security, there's no such thing as solitary confinement at McNaughton. No prisoners sit behind bars. The grounds look more like a summer camp than a correctional facility. But the inmates aren't idle.

"They're all working," Kosbab said. "Everybody here at McNaughton works for eight hours a day."

They work in McNaughton's cabinetry shop, making furniture to donate to local schools, nonprofits, and municipalities.

They work at the on-campus sawmill, producing lumber from nearby forests.

Some work at in the facility's garden or help landscape the grounds.

"If we can help them develop good habits while they're here, they're more likely to continue them once they leave," Kosbab said.

About 80 percent work off prison grounds at various places in the community. Chavous has worked at Trig's in Minocqua for two years.

"I've met people there that I really, really care for, and I think really care for me," he said. "They care about my success, I can tell."

But outside of those eight working hours each day, McNaughton provides a place to live.

The facility has eight boats for the inmates to take out on Little Tomahawk Lake. Fishing is among the most popular free-time activities. An imaginary line splits the lake in half, marking the boundary for the inmates on the water.

An indoor basketball court, pool hall, and picnic area also allow for recreation.

In other words, McNaughton provides things these men will do in their free time once they leave here.

Leaving at the end of a sentence is often on the minds of these men and McNaughton's staff. The word "transition" gets used here a lot. McNaughton is a place for men to transition from stricter incarceration to the free world.

"You can't take an individual, lock him up for a number of years, give him $20 and a new suit, and say, 'Here, go be successful,'" Kosbab said. "You have to transition them back into society."

"Life is more than just, okay, I'm free, let's go," Oshefsky agreed. "That's not realistic."

For his part, Chavous says he would have crashed hard had he gone straight from another prison into the community.

"Without the support of being here, it would have been catastrophic," he predicted. "It wouldn't have been good."

Instead, once he's released in a few months, Chavous plans to become a social worker, helping steer people away from alcohol and other drugs.

"[It's] one of the fields that I have various knowledge in on the bad side," he said. "I'm going to take it and turn it into the positive this time."

Oshefsky will move back home to Oconto County to work in the electromechanical field.

"It's almost time to go home, you know?" he said passionately. "You start feeling that and becoming part of that."

If Oshefsky and Chavous are any example, McNaughton has met its goals.

"All of this I've learned has been in preparation for me to become a better person, a better man, that I was created to be," Chavous said with a smile.

Story By: Ben Meyer

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