Work release program 'a win-win' in Douglas County
Fentech started working with the DOC's work release program a year prior to the pandemic and it’s helped the company fill vacancies it struggled to fill, said Renee Heytens, human resources manager.
SUPERIOR — Tony Drewes was 53 in 2017 when he headed out in a boat with some guys from work, drank to excess and ended up killing a woman.
According to a 2019 report in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Drewes’ boat was traveling 20-25 mph when it struck the side of the pontoon and threw 61-year-old Jill Ladwig into the lake where she drowned with multiple blunt force injuries.
Drewes, now 58, is midway through a six-year prison sentence after pleading no contest to a charge of homicide by intoxicated use of a vehicle.
Now the former chief financial officer for the company that sponsors the Fiserv Forum — home to the Bucks and entertainment in downtown Milwaukee — is nine months into a job at Fentech in Superior, cutting frames for windows as he serves his time at Gordon Correctional Center in southern Douglas County.
With businesses throughout the state struggling to fill positions, Kevin Carr, secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Corrections, said the DOC's work release program could be part of the solution.
For more than 50 years, the DOC has had a program in place that can be part of the solution while helping people in the custody of the state prison system increase their opportunity to gain employment once released.
The work release program began in 1965 and helps prepare individuals for self-sufficiency, said Julie Ustruck-Wetzel, superintendent of the Milwaukee Women’s Correction Center.
Work release is operated out of the 12 men’s and two women’s minimum-security facilities in Wisconsin.
Fentech first learned about the program from one of its employees, and the owner reached out to learn more, said Renee Heytens, human resources manager for the North End window manufacturer. The Gordon Correctional Center work release coordinator met with all staff to address concerns and go over the rules and how the program works.
"There was some hesitation,” Heytens said. “Everybody had concerns.”
Relationships between regular employees and individuals in the DOC's care must always remain professional, and there can be no exchange of money or other items, Ustruck-Wetzel said.
"There are additional expectations when employing a person in the care of DOC,” she said. “For instance, DOC staff will randomly check on individuals while at work."
Fentech started working with the DOC work release program a year prior to the pandemic and it’s helped the company fill vacancies that it had struggled to fill, Heytens said. She said people in the care of the Gordon Correctional Center can fill any of the production jobs that any of their other workers do.
And employers ultimately decide who will work for them.
“It’s almost like any other hiring process,” Heytens said. “They fill out an application just like everyone else. They come in, have an interview with us, do a walk through and see if they are a good fit for us. We offer them the position, and if they would like to take it, they’re hired.”
There are additional steps before individuals are placed in the work release program.
Ustruck-Wetzel said individuals are assessed and must be classified for community custody, which allows them to be in the community without direct DOC supervision. To qualify, individuals must follow established DOC rules.
Drewes said in his case, because the charge involved a homicide, he also had to be approved by the warden of Wisconsin’s minimum-security facilities.
So far, Heytens said the program has worked out for Fentech.
"We took a chance and we said we would like to try it,” Heytens said. “It was 100% a success for us. We like to think it's a win-win. It helps the fellows at the correctional center prepare for their release. They earn some money. They get back into the workforce. We've had some employees from Gordon where this has been their very first job. They never had a job before."
Drewes, whose first brush with the law beyond a citation or two happened in 2017 at age 53, said there’s a lot of things Wisconsin gets wrong when it comes to justice — mass incarceration, truth in sentencing among them — but the work release program is not one of them.
“Work release,” Drewes said. “Wisconsin got it right.”
Drewes said going to work gives him something to focus on, makes him feel like he’s contributing and gives him a sense of accomplishment.
“We pay rent, room and board,” Drewes said of work release individuals. “It’s roughly $750 a month … it’s actually good for the taxpayer.”
He said the job also allows him to contribute to his family as a husband and father of three children, with two in college.
Ustruck-Wetzel said work release can help people pay restitution, court fees and other financial obligations such as supporting their families. She said they can also open a savings account to have money available when they are released from custody.
Carr said the vast majority of people in DOC custody return to their communities within two years. Only about 10% of the prison population remains in custody past five years, he said.
Drewes said it can also be a win for employers because inmates are a dependable workforce. The DOC ensures workers arrive timely and provides an additional layer of management, he said.
As someone who worked in finance for years, Drewes said it also can save an employer money. While employers pay inmates the typical wage they pay other employees, he said they aren’t strapped with the cost of health care, the second largest expense after employee wages.
Companies who are considering the program should reach out to DOC officials for more information.
“I would say look into it and be open-minded,” Heytens said. “It’s very successful, and we’re very happy.”
This story was updated at 3 p.m. July 27 to add more information about Drewes' conviction. It was originally posted at 9:18 a.m. April 27.