Five McNaughton inmates graduate from first-ever program at Nicolet CollegeSubmitted: 06/18/2018
Lane Kimble
Lane Kimble
News Director

Five McNaughton inmates graduate from first-ever program at Nicolet College
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.

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We now know the name of a man who drown in Vilas County.

According to the Vilas County Sheriff's Office, 70 year old John Zeibert of Phelps died.

The sheriff's office received a report around 11:08 p.m. Friday that Zeibert had not returned home from boating. He was last seen around 7:30 p.m. Deputies found the Ziebert's boat floating unoccupied when they arrived at the lake. 

Deputies searched the area with assistance from the DNR, Phelps Fire Department, and Phelps Ambulance. At 8:00 a.m. Zeibert's body was found in the water. He was not wearing a life jacket.

The cause of the drowning is under investigation.

In a press release, the sheriff's office urged people to have and wear appropriate life jackets while enjoying water related activities. 

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Nicolet Country Club in Laona hosted its seventh annual veteran golf outing.

Former ROTC member Thomas Rice says having veteran-based events help keep veterans in touch with each other.

"[It's all about] the comradery and good times with not only the World War ll veterans but also Korean War veterans and Vietnam [veterans]," said Rice.

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Monday, the list was whittled down to the top 16 business.

Northwoods business Caged Crow Customs made the cut.

The St. Germain business makes custom themed food trucks out of nearly any type of vehicle.

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This has caused some disagreement with Tomahawk residents. Owner of the Northern Lights Vape Shop Tom Simic doesn't think that e-cigarettes themselves are the problem but irresponsible parenting is. He believes they are a good thing because they have helped people, including himself, quit actual cigarettes.

"I haven't had a cigarette since I started vaping, which was five years ago," said Simic. According to him, that's after over 20 years of smoking.

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MERRILL - A decade ago, some of the highest rates of suicide in the state came from Lincoln County.

Those numbers have improved slightly since then. But death by suicide is still a major concern in the area.

A billboard in the center of Merrill serves as a reminder. It directs people to call the Hopeline, a free crisis prevention line.

"The mental health coalition has been doing a lot of work in suicide prevention efforts for several years," said Debbie Moellendorf, a co-facilitator for the new Healthy Minds for Lincoln County group.

Moellendorf's coalition is responsible for the billboard, and for trying to change attitudes about mental illness.

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NORTHWOODS - Good drivers should follow the basic rules of the road: Don't drink and drive, wear a seatbelt, and follow the speed limit. For ATV and UTV drivers those same rules can apply, but DNR wardens also want people to consider some other factors. 

So far in 2018 at least 19 ATV/UTV accidents resulted in a fatality.  

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