SSM Health hospital funds education navigator for former inmates

February 15, 2023


When people are released from incarceration and rejoin society, it can be very difficult for them to gain stability, and this is especially true for individuals who lack a high school diploma, job skills and a path to employment.


In Sauk County, Wisconsin, SSM Health St. Clare Hospital — Baraboo is investing community benefit dollars to break the cycle of revolving door incarceration. The hospital provides the financial support that enables the Sauk County Department of Human Services to employ an education navigator. In that post Sasha Ripley provides resources and tutoring for returning citizens who want to earn their high school general equivalency diploma, or otherwise pursue further education.

Ripley also directs formerly incarcerated individuals to job training programs and social services.


Amanda Hanson, justice, diversion and support programs manager for the Sauk County Administration department, says education is fundamental to well-being and independence. "Not having an education greatly impacts people's finances, health," their ability to support themselves and their family and many other aspects of their lives, she explains.

Sauk County in south central Wisconsin has a population of nearly 66,000. Baraboo is the county seat and the county's largest city.

According to information from SSM Health, around 2017, Sauk County's health department set out to better understand the socioeconomic problems, trauma and stress that were occurring among people who had been jailed and their families. The cycle of repeated incarceration and the economic upheaval it engendered produced food and housing instability.

The Sauk County Sheriff's Office and departments within the University of Wisconsin-Platteville Baraboo Sauk County got involved in the study. A significant percentage of former inmates lacked high school diplomas and many had been telling the sheriff's department that they wanted education, training and credentials.

The research group enlisted SSM Health St. Clare Hospital — Baraboo's support to fund the education navigator program. The hospital has been providing $71,000 annually since 2020. It covers the navigator's salary as well as the costs of textbooks and testing fees for program participants. So far, three people have earned their GED. Two of them have applied to go to college in the fall. Eight students are working their way through the program now.

Ripley assists with the paperwork and other process steps to pursue the GED and she provides virtual tutoring. She works with program participants on practice tests and arranges transportation to the GED testing site where a civics test is administered. It is the only one of a series of tests that has to be completed in person. Candidates also must pass tests in language arts, social studies, science and math.


The students can opt to pursue the High School Equivalency Diploma, or HSED, which adds some introductory health coursework on top of the GED requirements. Students pursuing an HSED also receive instruction on job searching skills, workplace etiquette and cover letter and resume writing.

Ripley says students may study and prepare for several months before each test, so it usually takes at least a year to complete her program and earn a GED, and it would take a few additional months to earn an HSED.

She also can help those who have gotten their GED to register for college placement and complete financial aid forms.


Ripley can connect her students with a Sauk County job center for job training, resume writing assistance and other services.

Jennifer MacDonald is an employee of the justice, diversion and support division of the county administration department. She held the education navigator position temporarily last fall while Ripley was on leave. MacDonald says one student in the program wants to be a peer mentor and needs a high school diploma to qualify. Another student wants to be an addiction counselor, and the diploma is the first step to pursuing higher education toward that goal. Another man, who is nearly 60 years old, wants to show his kids he can learn to read. He's spent many years in prison, MacDonald says, and is determined to be a role model to his kids, who are in elementary and middle school.

Nikeya Bramlett, community health manager for SSM Health St. Clare Hospital — Baraboo and SSM Health St. Mary's Hospital — Madison, says while the education navigator program is still relatively small and slowly gaining momentum, SSM Health expects it will come to have a lasting positive impact for participants and their families.

She says, "We at SSM Health are investing in this because it's related to our mission, which includes serving vulnerable populations. This population of formerly incarcerated people is extra vulnerable, and they often don't have the resources they need to thrive."


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