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Prison reading groups liberate minds, UW grad students find

March 21, 2012

Jose Vergara, a graduate student in the UW–Madison Department of Slavic Languages and Literature, remembers how the Oakhill Correctional Institution inmates in his reading and writing group reacted to a short story called “Blue Notebook #10,” by Daniil Kharms.

A character in the story, known only as “the red-haired man,” gradually loses his body parts over the course of the narrative. At the end, there’s nothing left.

“The men could relate to that,” says Vergara, who, along with fellow Slavic graduate student Jesse Stavis, has been running Literature in Life at Oakhill Correctional Institution in Oregon, Wis. since last September.

“They often have the same feeling, that they have lost their voice, or sight, or parts of themselves,” Vergara adds.

On Friday, March 23rd, Jody Lewen, the founder of San Quentin’s Prison University Project, will give a public talk at 3:15 p.m. at the Pyle Center, 702 Langdon St., on the benefits of prison outreach work, and other kinds of public scholarly engagement, among humanities graduate students.

As the keynote speaker for the UW Center for the Humanities’ fifth annual Public Humanities Conference, Lewen will explain why universities should expand their academic program routes to include many more opportunities for humanities graduate students who’d like to use their deep knowledge base and critical thinking skills in non-academic settings.

The Public Humanities Conference, from 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m., is free and open to the public, and features discussions with faculty and civic leaders about partnership, globalization, and funding for the humanities.

Lewen’s keynote will address the barriers to public engagement and highlight the benefits of such work — particularly with forgotten populations such as prisoners.

The benefits go both ways.

Take Jose Vergara’s project, Literature in Life, that brings Russian literature and absurdist short fiction to Oakhill prisoners. Vergara was looking for a way to share the literature he loves outside of academics. What he found, among a group of roughly eight to 10 inmates, were many different responses and fresh insights into texts he thought he knew well.

“It’s ironic, but I find being in the prison to be very liberating,” he says. “I enjoy being able to talk about these stories with people from so many different backgrounds.”

The UW Center for the Humanities has been sponsoring prison outreach projects at Oakhill, led by UW humanities graduate students, since 2005.

This continuity from year to year has allowed a build-up of trust among participating inmates, and insured a good turnout for workshops, which typically meet once a week and last two hours.

Writers in Prisons, a flourishing writing workshop within Oakhill Correctional Institute, got its start as a graduate-student-run project supported by this program, formerly known as HEX and now called the Public Humanities Exchange.

Statistical evidence drawn from prison education efforts such as the renowned Hudson Link program at Sing Sing shows a steep drop in recidivism among prisoners who have participated in education programs.

The Public Humanities Exchange goes beyond simple volunteerism and the pure research model, to build mutually-rewarding relationships with partners as diverse as community centers, libraries, hospitals, schools, and nursing homes.

“It is a two-way street,” says UW Center for the Humanities’ interim director, history professor Steve Kantrowitz. “Public humanities scholars aren’t just teaching-they’re learning: how to listen, communicate, and work in a variety of settings, some of them difficult.”