It is a testament to how the mind can be free even when the body isn’t, as more than two dozen men and women who are inmates in Wisconsin graduated with college degrees on Friday.

“We’re not just a label. We are people who want to do right, we want to do good, but we got caught in unfortunate circumstances,” said Martin Medina, one of the inmates who participated in the program. He said last Friday that the moment was a dream come true as he became a first-generation college graduate.

“It gives me hope, on a personal level, that I can achieve far more than what I ever thought was possible. On the bigger scale it gives me hope that I can influence the next generation of my family and even just other individuals in society to have the role models that I never had before,” said Medina.

As one of 25 inmates who have received diplomas last week, this collaborative effort between the Wisconsin Department of Corrections (DOC) and Milwaukee Area Technical College for the “Second Chance Pell Pilot Program” has shown exactly why education is the one of the only ways to guarantee freedom.

“Last year, we had approximately 150 participants at 12 institutions. The current semester that is launching this week has 200 participants at 14 institutions, including 2 maximum (security institutions) which is a major feat,” said Ben Jones, Department of Corrections Education Director.

Lt. Gov. Manela Barnes agreed with visiting DOC Secretary Kevin Carr as they spoke to the graduates about the “vital” importance of education, and encouraged them to revel in their preparation for life after incarceration. For Medina, who grew up living in poverty, says that hope is what led him to such a momentous day.

“I come from a place of little hope. Where everything around you feels like its collapsing and the world is falling in on you but if you actually focus your energy on positive you can bring yourself out of that situation. Especially if you have the right mentors around you,” he said.

The next step for Medina is to achieve a Bachelor’s degree in either Psychology or Business Administration. 

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