University of Wisconsin Odyssey Project successfully offered face-to-face credit-bearing courses inside Oakhill Correctional Facility for the first time in 100 years through the Odyssey Beyond Bars program.

Program director Peter Moreno said Odyssey Beyond Bars began with non-credit classes in prisons throughout the state, but after seeing a demand for more college courses, Odyssey introduced pilot credit-bearing courses last fall. The pilot program started with teaching an English 100 course to 15 students within the prison. Moreno said the class met Thursday evenings with tutoring sessions available Tuesday nights. 

Moreno said 100 years ago, UW extension attempted to teach credit-bearing courses in what is now the Waupun Institution.

“At the time, there was a code of silence among prisoners,” Moreno said. “Because prisoners weren’t allowed to speak at all, even in class, they decided to abandon face-to-face classes.”

UW Extension transitioned to having students mail assignments and exams to teachers and corresponding only in writing, Moreno said.

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This continued until 1994 when congress made prisoners ineligible for Pell Grants, which was the main source for funding credit-bearing classes inside prisons, Moreno said. Because of this, educational programs taught in correctional facilities across the country have largely not offered credits to students, according to Moreno. 

In recent years, though, programs that offer college credits to students in prisons have started to show up across the country. Program Co-Director and Instructor Kevin Mullen said programs like San Quentin Prison University Program and Bard College’s Bard Prison Initiative even offer pathways for students in prison to earn full degrees.

“I’m happy to say that Wisconsin is now on board with offering credit-bearing courses to students in prison,” Moreno said. “There’s a tremendous demand for them. When we finished the English 100 class this last fall, many of the students came up to me and the instructor, Kevin Mullen, and said, ‘Okay, this was wonderful. We’re ready for more.’”

More is on the way, Moreno said. Odyssey Beyond Bars hopes to offer more classes in the summer and fall. As the program continues, Mullen said Odyssey Beyond Bars hopes to expand to other prisons in the state as well.

Moreno said Odyssey Beyond Bars wants to someday offer students a path to earn a bachelor’s degree. To achieve that, Odyssey has applied for the Department of Education’s Second Chance Pell Grant program, which allows selected universities to bypass the ban and offer Pell Grants to students in prison. 

“As we go forward, I see a whole range of classes,” Mullen said. “We’ve talked to people in philosophy, in theatre and music, Afro American and English. Bringing in more classes would be terrific. We’re still waiting to hear from Second Chance Pell [Grant].” 

Mullen said the students in the program were excited to be there and to learn. A main goal of the program was to create a desire for education, and Mullen said he believes they achieved that. 

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Mullen said the Odyssey Beyond Bars program was one of his most positive teaching experiences because of the enthusiasm and dedication students brought to the classroom. 

“One of [the students] said, ‘I feel you just gave us an appetizer here, and now we’re ready for the main course,’” Mullen said. “It was actually very sad at the end of the semester that the course was coming to a close.”

Moreno said many of the students in the pilot of credit-bearing courses participated in the non-credit versions that are offered. For some students, being a part of other educational programs in the prison made them more interested in the credit-bearing program option, he said. 

Additionally, participating in non-credit bearing courses helped students become more confident in their abilities to take on the added pressure of a graded course, Moreno said. Oakhill is a minimum-security facility, so many of the students work during the day as they transition out of the prison system. This can make it difficult to find a time and place to study, Moreno said. 

Despite these challenges, students in the program continued to do extremely well in the class and stay passionate about the course, Moreno said. 

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“These guys were incredible writers,” Moreno said. “The lens of experience and what they would write about was really moving.”

Mullen said providing educational opportunities to people can help not only to provide more employment options in the future, but can also help to change how they view themselves and their potential.

Mullen said education can be a powerful tool for anyone, but especially so for people who have faced many obstacles in their life, which is why it is so important to continue to expand Odyssey Beyond Bars. 

“These guys have gone through a lot of difficult things, and for them to be able to see themselves as college material, to see their future with a college degree, is a radical break from how they see themselves in the past,” Mullen said.