RHINELANDER - Wearing his black gown and mortarboard, Derek Pranke looked every bit the part of a proud graduate on Monday afternoon.
"We all pulled straight A's," Pranke said of his graduating class.
But Pranke knew his outfit beat the one he got used to wearing the last few years.
"[Class was] better than wasting time and just sitting and doing nothing in prison," Pranke said.
Pranke has spent the last 9 months at McNaughton Correctional facility near Lake Tomahawk. It's one of the final legs of a 3 1/2-year prison sentence for his role in a Wisconsin burglary (Pranke describes it as he was tricked into being the getaway driver for a felony crime.)
For the last 14 weeks, Pranke and four other inmates went to Nicolet in Rhinelander to take the college's mechanical maintenance program. The inmates learned about hydraulics, pneumatic operation, and even got training in how to perform CPR. The five student-inmates each earned a degree which they can use to land jobs after their release.
"[We want them to] gain successful re-entry and not come back to prison, that's our goal," Department of Corrections Secretary Cathy Jess said outside the graduation ceremony.
The Department of Corrections has offered many school programs within the walls of its correctional facilities over the years, but in the last few years the DOC used grant funding to help pay for the on-campus programs. Pranke's class was the first to go through the program at Nicolet College.
"We take students all the time with different backgrounds, different barriers, different histories," Nicolet College Career Pathways Coordinator Toni Van Doren said.
Van Doren says bringing McNaughton inmates to campus did force the college to re-evaluate how instructors teach and reach all students, especially when it came to web-based learning, which the inmates didn't have access to. Van Doren views that brought an unexpected benefit for the college as a whole.
Van Doren estimates the degrees the inmates earned could land them a job in any manufacturing plant in the state, allowing them to make $15 to $25 per hour as a starting wage.
"They were some of our best students," Van Doren said of the inmates. "I mean, they really put in the time and effort."
Fourteen weeks of hard work which were all worth it to Pranke, who was honored as the student speaker during Monday's ceremony. Pranke can't wait to finish his sentence, get a job, and show his children how prison and school changed him for the better.
"It's a good lesson for them," Pranke said of his three children, who were at the ceremony. "Don't screw up, but if you do screw up, you can always better yourself."
Nicolet plans to continue the McNaughton program in the fall, with the coursework focused on welding.
Pranke expects his release date to come right around Christmas this year.