UW program will teach for-credit college courses in Wisconsin prisons

MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin inmates with a hunger for knowledge and a desire to dip into the world of college education will now have more access to do so.

The University of Wisconsin– Madison’s Odyssey Beyond Bars Program received a $300,000 grant from the Oscar Rennebohm Foundation to teach college courses in Wisconsin prisons.

The UW Odyssey project was created 18 years ago as a humanities jumpstart course for low income families who want to continue education. Since 2015, Odyssey Beyond Bars has taught for-credit and noncredit UW Madison courses in Wisconsin prisons. The first for-credit course, English 100, was taught by Odyssey’s Co-Director Kevin Mullen.

“This was the first UW Madison class, credit-bearing, to be taught in a prison for over 100 years when I taught that class in 2019,” Mullen said.

Since that first class was taught at the Oakhill Correctional Institute, Mullen has taught the course every year to inmates for credit at UW Madison.  He said last spring, they expanded to teach an African American studies course on multi-cultural literature. With the funds from the grant, Mullen said the program will now teach three different courses across three Wisconsin prisons in the coming years, with academic advising and tutoring offered to students during the week. Mullen said several of his students recently were released from OCI and are now full-time students at various technical colleges in Wisconsin.

“As someone who is in the classroom, I’ve seen personally how much it changes students views on themselves, on the world around them and also what they can do going forward,” he said.

The class is taught once a week for two and a half hours to a classroom of 15 students. Mullen said most of the students he encounters have never had the opportunity to take a college class.

“What I end up getting is a bunch of terrific, very engaging, sometimes heartbreaking stories,” Mullen said. “The students are absolutely articulate in trying to bring these stories out. The expansion of thought, the expansion of thinking through how you fit in the world around you. The more you can feel connected to ideas and education, the more centered you are as you are released into the community and you have more hope towards the future.”

The program enrolls 100 incarcerated individuals annually, 30 for-credit at Oakhill Correctional Institution in Oregon and 80 noncredit students at the Wisconsin Resource Center in Winnebago.

Former inmates who applied for courses in the fall wrote the following messages to the UW Odyssey Project about why they wanted to join:

“I can’t believe I’m actually sitting here, talking with a real UW professor. My mom is going to love this! She’s an elementary teacher, and she always said education can set you free. She’s going to be so excited!”

“I have six kids, and I want them to know that education is important, and that they can do it. It’s one thing for me to preach that kind of thing over the phone, but I want them to see me doing it. I want to show them that I practice what I preach, and that they can do it too.”

Mullen said they are still working out details on which prisons the courses will be taught at starting this spring, but are aiming for prisons close to UW campuses to be able to find the staff to support the classrooms. Mullen said even the students who do not go on to enroll in a college as a full-time student upon release from prison still re-enter society with a particular set of skills and a mindset they would not have had otherwise.

“The Bureau of Justice Statistics said that after taking education classes incarcerated individuals are 43% less likely to commit another crime and come back to prison,” he said. “A majority of people currently in prison will be coming out of prison. If we are shutting down their options and possibilities when they’re released, there’s a very good likelihood they could end up back in prison. But if we can show that there are ways forward that they don’t have to repeat past mistakes and they can pursue educational, professional and personal goals, and that there’s support and an audience for that, people will be able to find a place in society as they’re released into it.”