UW program will teach college credit courses in Wisconsin prisons

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MADISON, Wisconsin – Wisconsin inmates who crave knowledge and want to dive into the world of college education will now have more access to do so.

University of Wisconsin – Madison’s Odyssey program beyond the bars 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 starter course in the humanities for low-income families who want to continue their education. Since 2015, Odyssey Beyond Bars has been teaching UW Madison credit and non-credit courses in Wisconsin prisons. The first credited course, English 100, was taught by Odyssey Co-Director Kevin Mullen.

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

Since that first course was taught at the Oakhill Correctional Institute, Mullen has taught the course annually to inmates to earn credits at UW Madison. He said that last spring they expanded to teach an African-American studies course on multicultural literature. With the funds from the grant, Mullen said the program will now teach three different courses in three Wisconsin prisons in the coming years, with academic counseling and private lessons offered to students during the week. Mullen said several of his students were recently released from the OIC and are now full-time students at various technical colleges in Wisconsin.

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

The course is given once a week for two and a half hours to a class of 15 students. Mullen said most of the students he met had never had the opportunity to take a college course.

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

The program enrolls 100 incarcerated individuals each year, 30 for credit at Oakhill Correctional Facility in Oregon, and 80 uncredited students at the Wisconsin Resource Center in Winnebago.

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

“I can’t believe I’m sitting here talking with a real UW teacher. My mom will love this! She is an elementary school teacher and she has always said that education can set you free. She is going to be so horny!

“I have six children 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 do it. I want to show them that I practice what I preach, and that they can do it too.

Mullen said they were still working to determine which prisons classes would be held in from this spring, but aimed to ensure that prisons near UW campuses could find staff to support the classrooms. Mullen said that even students who do not enter college as a full-time student upon release from prison still re-enter society with a particular set of skills and a mindset that they do not. would not have had otherwise.

“The Bureau of Justice Statistics said that after taking education courses, incarcerated individuals are 43% less likely to commit another crime and return to prison,” he said. “The majority of those currently incarcerated will be released from prison. If we close their options and possibilities when they are released, there is a good chance that they will return to prison. But if we can show that there are ways forward, that they do not have to repeat the mistakes of the past and that they can pursue educational, professional and personal goals, and that there is support and an audience for it, people will be able to find a place in society as they are released into it.


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