New UW–Madison Odyssey Project program offers college credit — and hope — to people in prison

February 24, 2020 By Lisa Bauer
Closeup of marked-up draft of an essay being examined by 2 unidentified people

at Oakhill Correctional Institution. Every Thursday evening, 15 men gathered in a classroom for an English 100 course to read essays and create their own. Photo: Chris Bacarella

The University of Wisconsin–Madison Odyssey Project launched Odyssey Beyond Bars this fall, the campus’s first known effort to teach credit courses face-to-face to people who are incarcerated. Fifteen men from a prison in Oregon, Wisconsin, will receive college credits from UW–Madison.

“Many people in prison need a pathway to turn their life around, and education can provide that pathway,” says Peter Moreno, Odyssey Beyond Bars director. “I am excited to see the university offer people in prison some of the same opportunities for learning and transformation that we offer to our students on campus.”

The first course took place at Oakhill Correctional Institution. Every Thursday evening, 15 men gathered in a classroom for an English 100 course to read essays and create their own. One student wrote about having a learning disability, becoming a father during his freshman year of high school, dropping out of school and becoming entangled in the justice system:

“My defective area was my ability to read, write and comprehend. Who wants to be in the back of the class with the troublemakers? Now 18 years later, I sit in Oakhill correctional prison, look back, shake my head and think, ‘Why? Where did I go wrong?’ But I smile looking into the future! I am set to better myself with school. Writing is the window out of which winged thoughts fly, a tiny magic mirror on whose crystal surface words of feeling fitfully play, like the sunlight and shadows on a quiet stream. This class has already opened my eyes to a better life for myself.”

All 15 men in the pilot program will earn three UW credits in English and a newfound sense of hope and self-awareness. With the success of this first class, the program will hold additional courses at Oakhill in summer and fall 2020.

Portrait of Moreno and Mullen standing together

Peter Moreno (left) and Kevin Mullen Photo: Emily Azad

“I have been a teacher for over 18 years, and this was one of the most transformative classroom experiences I’ve ever had,” says Odyssey Project co-director Kevin Mullen. “I left that class with a deep respect for the eloquence and honesty of the students, as well as a commitment to expand access to higher education for incarcerated learners in the state of Wisconsin.”

Studies like those from the RAND Corporation show incarcerated people — and society as a whole — benefit from prison education. Prisoners who complete at least some college coursework are more likely to be self-sufficient upon release and less likely to return to prison.

Odyssey Beyond Bars offers students in prison the same kind of introduction to college that the Odyssey Project already provides to community-based students in South Madison: free courses in the humanities, coupled with regular tutoring and academic advising that encourages students to pursue college degrees. UW–Madison is working to build a bachelor’s degree program for this population.

The UW Odyssey Project takes a whole family approach to breaking the cycle of generational poverty through access to education, giving adult and youth learners a voice, and increasing confidence through reading, writing and speaking. Now in its 17th year, the Odyssey Project has empowered more than 450 low-income adults and 150 of their children and grandchildren to find their voices and reimagine their futures.

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