Last year, University of Wisconsin Slavic languages and literature graduate student Jose Vergara sat with his students in a circle, discussing the themes of “The Garden of Forking Paths,” a detective story about fate, choices and the possibility of alternate realities.

For Vergara, the discussion proved more lively than many of the undergraduate classes he had taught. He said the passion and energy that exuded from his 12 students, who eagerly joined him in literary deliberation, proved for him the worth of the humanities.

“There was this moment where I felt like literature mattered,” Vergara said. “It could mean something beyond pure entertainment — it changes how we view the world and the way we think.”

Vergara was working with a unique demographic — his students ranged from 18 to more than 80-years-old. Instead of a UW classroom, they gathered in an all-male minimum security corrections facility. His students were inmates at the Oakhill Correctional Institute, about 30 minutes south of Madison.

At the time, Vergara was the program coordinator for the Oakhill Prison Humanities Project. It received its first major grant in 2013, giving numerous inmates at the Oakhill facility the chance to take classes in the humanities. About 20 UW graduate students and faculty teach courses in history, literature, art, drama, creative writing and philosophy.

The Oakhill Prison Humanities Project began in 2005 when two UW graduate students started teaching evening poetry classes to inmates. Since then, several professors and students have collaborated to expand the scope and range of courses offered, all of which relate to the humanities.

Though inmates do not receive course credit for what they learn, the classes give them the chance to create their own engaging and complex artistic work, ranging from rap and acoustic guitar ballads to portraiture and original monologues.

Because all items inmates send outside the prison undergo scrupulous inspection, most of the inmates’ creations never leave Oakhill’s walls.

Adam R./Oakhill Prison Humanities Project

But this is all about to change. To shed light on the lives of the Oakhill inmates, Vergara is spearheading a new exhibit named “Artists in Absentia” at Madison Public Library in March that will feature inmate art, texts and music. Forty-one prisoners created 61 featured works during the fall 2015 semester.

The exhibit will be held through Madison Public Library’s program “The Bubbler,” which hosts events relating to a range of art forms in the community. Bubbler coordinator Trent Miller said “Artists in Absentia” is different from projects the library has seen in the past. Showcasing the work of currently incarcerated adults, he said, is unique.

After its showing from March 3 to 31 at Madison Public Library, the exhibit will travel to other regional libraries. To find a permanent home for their art, Vergara said the inmates called for an auction, the proceeds of which will help fund arts programs in Madison Public Schools.

Kindling hidden narratives

Current UW professors and graduate students take time on weekday evenings to teach inmates about various subjects in the humanities.

Manon van de Water is a former theater professor and currently teaches in UW’s Slavic languages and literatures department. She combined both areas of expertise to form her drama class at Oakhill. She taught her first session in fall 2015. 

The Oakhill Prison Humanities Project first intrigued her because it employs her vision of theater as therapy, she said.

Her class utilizes many improvisation exercises, she said, where students receive a 10-word script with no context and must create a scene with a partner. Past examples include everything from a dialogue between a prison guard and inmate, to life on a different planet billions of years in the future.

Then, van de Water asked students to come up with their own 10-word scenes, which she said revealed their deeper feelings and emotions. Observing the inmates as students in her class, van de Water said, made it hard to believe the men had been convicted of serious crimes.

“In working with them, there is no indication that they’re even remotely criminals in a sense of the stereotype,” she said. “They’re people and they’re taking the class and they’re wonderful.”

Shannon L./Oakhill Prison Humanities Project

Ron Kuka, who heads UW’s creative writing department and teaches writing classes at Oakhill, said written narrative is another way inmates can reflect on their lives.

Giving inmates — who have very little contact with the outside world — a platform to share their work publicly is extremely important to them, Kuka said.

Van de Water emphasized the reciprocal fulfillment that both inmates and teachers receive through the program. She said at least one student expresses his gratitude at each class.

Professors and graduate students receive no compensation for their work. Rather, they thrive off the opportunity to make a difference in inmates’ lives.

“It is really very gratifying,” van de Water said. “Otherwise, we wouldn’t do it.”

Cultivating creative minds

The program volunteers observed clear personal and intellectual developments among the inmates.

Vergara said while the Oakhill program helps inmates express themselves to the outside world, it also helps bring that world to them. Vergara, who taught literature classes for the project, said sharing great works of literature with the inmates helped them engage with the world in a new way.

He said the inmates often connected events in the book to their own experiences. While he said their response differed from the more analytical approach taken in universities, the inmates’ practicality had an influence on his own teaching at UW.

Michael K./Oakhill Prison Humanities Project

Spring Greeney, a UW history graduate student who teaches art for the project, said her students developed artistic confidence as classes progressed. She said one of her students approached her, telling her the volunteers had pushed him to create something he was truly proud of.

“I’ve frequently felt moved to tears at the trust and caring that the participants exuded,” Greeney said. “[The classes] were healing in some way for them, and I’m really proud of that fact.”

Vergara also noted his students’ writing improved throughout the course of each semester. Their discussions soon took on a more analytical approach, and they began incorporating writing techniques discussed during class into their own work.

A new method of prison education

Nick Yackovich, a clinical assistant professor in UW’s School of Social Work and expert in inmate reentry into communities, said prison education programs often aren’t heavily subsidized, as some people view such funding as a move to be “soft on crime.”

Programs offered in prisons usually teach vocational skills for inmates to apply in real-world jobs, Yackovich said. At the Oakhill facility, Greeney said vocational training is provided, as are certain jobs. She said one of her students is a driver, one does deliveries and a couple work at a furniture manufacturing facility on site.

Not only do classes inside prisons help inmates learn proficiencies they can use when released, but they help boost self-esteem as well, Yackovich said.

“People feel better about themselves when they can earn a certificate or complete anything that’s productive or positive,” Yackovich said. “If they haven’t had a lot of opportunities for that, this just helps them feel better about themselves, about their ability to change and maybe about their life going forward.”

Ryan B./Oakhill Prison Humanities Project

The Oakhill Prison Humanities Project lets inmates collaborate with people who come from outside the prison, which Yackovich said is rare. He said allowing inmates to directly interact with people from the communities they’ll be released back into helps them positively readjust to life outside prison.

Volunteers with the Humanities Project said their approach is unique — the subjects they teach improve communication skills among inmates and provide them with opportunities to understand new perspectives and cultures. The courses, Greeney said, also allow the inmates to express their own humanity.

“The hope is creative expression and meaning are at the heart of what it means to be a human being in the world,” Greeney said. “We should all be able to laugh at things and feel pain.”