Wisconsin prison timebank creates safety net, opportunities

MP900384768Timebanking, an alternative economy in which people exchange services instead of cash, is a way to build community and redefine the value of work. And in the case of the Dane County Timebank in Madison, Wisconsin, it’s a way to create a social network for those in reentry.

It was the idea of Cheri Maples, the former head of probation and parole for the Wisconsin Department of Corrections. When a neighbor-to-neighbor timebank was created in Madison, she saw it as an opportunity to provide a safety net for people getting out of prison.

That was in 2007, and since then timebank programs designed to include incarcerated people and those in reentry have been instituted by a variety of groups working together – the Dane County Timebank, the Wisconsin Department of Corrections, Madison Urban Ministry, a local Buddhist sangha and others.

These groups have done training for or created – or attempted to create – programs in the Dane County Jail, Fox Lake Correctional Institute, Columbia Correctional Institute, Jackson Correctional Institute, Burke Correctional Center, Oregon Correctional Center, Stanley Correctional Center, Community Corrections and Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility.

How it works

The process in many cases begins while people are still in prison.  Workers from inside the walls have painted neighborhood centers, rehabbed an old office and done landscaping and other work for nonprofit agencies. In addition, a dog-training program was created in which prisoners get time dollars, as does the person from the outside doing the training.

The work experience not only gives prisoners community connections that might provide opportunities post release, but they’re also paid time dollars to spend on such things as rides to job interviews, help with resume and interview skills, child care and other services they might need as they restart their lives. And once out, they can continue to work and earn time dollars.

“For prisoners it’s another resource,” says Maples. “They can make contacts and get references by doing timebank exchanges. Parole officers can also suggest that they do a certain number of timebanking exchanges to help them with the reentry process.”

Participating in timebanking also creates a safety net for those incarcerated. That safety net may be useful once they’re released. It also can be a means to connect them with people who might be able to help them find housing or employment or provide access to other resources. Or it may just result in a new friendship or even a mentor for those who take the initiative.

While creating a timebank is a good start, Maples wants to expand the effort. “The next step is to try to get business owners onboard, so that after so many successful exchanges they’d be willing to hire this person,” she says.

Creating a program of your own

Maples offers advice for other groups or timebanks who might want to start a similar program.

“First, you have to start a neighbor-to-neighbor timebank. Then after you have the core of that together, you can begin training people who are interested in going into the prisons and volunteering with people who will be coming out of prison,” she says. “You have to have some safety guidelines. Then you have to find people willing to make exchanges with formerly incarcerated people.”

That’s what it takes for anyone who might be interested.

For more information and a directory of timebanks worldwide, check out an organization known as TimeBanks USA.

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