By JOHN DAVIS
Wisconsin Public Radio
LA CROSSE, Wis. (AP) — Kemesha Harper’s future is bright.
The La Crosse woman is on track to graduate from Western Technical College in La Crosse this spring with a degree in human services. She wants to work with at-risk youth.
But what makes her story remarkable are the details of her life leading to her future.
Harper is a black single mother, living in public housing, with six operating-while-intoxicated arrests and various stays in the La Crosse County Jail.
“There was a point in my life where everything was going wrong,” she told Wisconsin Public Radio. “At the time I was working at a call center, and I absolutely hated going to work every day, and I was battling addiction. I knew that I wanted to make a change.”
Enter Project Proven, a program that has existed and been paid for by the U.S. Department of Education since 2013.
The program, started by Western Technical College and the La Crosse County Jail, is one of three DOE pilot programs throughout the country used to provide jobs and schooling to people who’ve been incarcerated.
Project Proven is a voluntary program for any adult inmate. Referrals are made by the corrections and court systems. Classes are held at the jail on topics like jobs, career planning and substance abuse.
In the program’s first five years, about 1,000 inmates have received services. The success rate is running at about 30 percent.
The main partnership is between Western Technical College and the La Crosse County jail, but various other organizations are also helping inmates.
The La Crosse program is being offered to inmates in Trempealeau and Monroe counties.
Project Proven has helped inmates in the three counties with things like taking basic adult education courses, obtaining a GED, or taking college courses, said Project Proven Manager Tonya Van Tol.
Now, the La Crosse chapter of Showing Up For Racial Justice is trying to raise $12,000 to start an endowment fund that would provide $2,000 in annual scholarship money that could be used by people of color who are in jail and join Project Proven.
“If you just choose a comfortable life and you only worry about yourself, you don’t create the community that we really need to create,” said La Crosse SURJ member Pat Lunney. “Wisconsin has the largest percentage of African-American men incarcerated in the country. La Crosse is no different to that.”
If the endowment is successful, it would be the first time Project Proven had money specifically designated to help minorities.
Of the 878 people who were booked for an alleged crime between February and December 2017, 76 percent were white and 19 percent were black, said Tonya Van Tol, a manager for Project Proven, citing La Crosse County Jail statistics.
She said the most recent La Crosse County statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau show 92 percent of the population is white and 1.5 percent is black.
She said it’s time the program started working to help people of color who have been incarcerated find a better life.
“The money that the SURJ donors are looking at supporting us with would help with things like rent, deposits, child care assistance, transportation, work boots, work clothes, interview clothes,” Van Tol said. “Small, simple things that really can stand in people’s way and be major barriers for them.”
Harper received a different scholarship through Project Proven last summer that helped her pay her rent and other bills she had.
“These things are so very important,” she said. “I work two part-time jobs, I have an internship and I’m a full-time student. The help is definitely appreciated.”