OBB students doing an assignment

Odyssey Beyond Bars: Student Voices

Prison education has the power to be transformative. Nothing shows this more than our students’ own writing. In the Odyssey Beyond Bars classroom, students develop their skills in writing and critical analysis and at the same time find their unique voices.

See below for some of the letters our students have written to the next class to share their experiences and advice. We also include some creative pieces produced by students throughout the semester.

Robert, Class of Fall 2021

To the Next Class,

One of the great things about the English language is its versatility in describing what you want to say and how to say it. Our language is rich, if not complicated, and though it has rules to follow, they can often be broken to create some brilliant results.

Each of us is unique and each of us has a unique story to tell and a different perspective of how we see life, even in here. No two people have the exact same history, nor experience the same condition in exactly the same way, even if we hail from the same environment.

The power and strength of this class, for me, has been to see how men from all walks of life, different cultures, races, ages, and ideas could all come together and share their collective stories in a way that you would not be able to see in the general population.

This class has been a safe place for people to come together and share their unique lives and stories, and if you allow yourself to expand your horizons, you will find that there is a richness in prison that escapes us all every day, simply because we don’t take the time to listen to others, or even to ourselves. When guys in the class tell their stories, they add to the dialogue of empowerment that is so needed within our lives as prisoners, and which is needed in the community as well.

By the time we get to our final stories, we have discovered that as much as we are different, there are many things that we have in common.

The advice that I would give, then, is to allow yourself to discover who you really are in this class. Not the mask that you put on while on the units or in your cell, but the real you that you would want your children to see, your grandchildren, but most importantly, the you that you want to see when you look in the mirror.

Good luck and have fun!

Mark, Class of Fall 2021

OBB student, Mark

I want to start this letter first by letting you know that I’m proud of you. It may be that I know some of you personally, and it may be that I’ve never met any of you. However, I personally know the struggle and the hardships that the experience you’re going through comes with, so I know that signing up for this class is a big step out of the norm. Some of you may be sitting in this class feeling like you’re not a writer, or even feeling nervous that you may not do well. But I’m here to tell you that you all have a story to tell. I’ve never in my life felt so free as I have felt taking this class. Don’t overthink your place in this class or how you will do. Just write and let the freedom of expression take you beyond these walls. Your story can and will change lives.

Danny, Class of Fall 2021

OBB student DannyComing to OCI (Oakhill Correctional Institution) was definitely a step backward in my path, and then I discovered this class where I was—or more like my writing was—accepted. But what really gave me sparkle in my heart’s eye was what good it brings out in you and for others. In fact, just the message it gives of hope to those of us in this struggle, how it gives you a purpose and drive, how supportive you find others to be of your courage to participate in this–as well as the advocating of others to also attempt to enroll later and be a part of a tiny community that doesn’t judge the flow of your pen and what’s left in the aftermath of these scribbles. Even now, I feel this weight of yesterday lifted and left behind like the first draft of whatever you’re writing the second or third or fourth draft of.

Billy, Class of Fall 2021

OBB student Billy

What’s good, youngsters! I don’t care if you are older than me when reading this—you’re still a youngster to me because I graduated from a college course before you, LOL. But now seriously, if you decided to take this class, lace up your boots, put your big boy pants on, buckle your seatbelt—choose whichever metaphor you’d like to use and do it! Because this class will definitely challenge you, in a fun and intellectual way. If writing isn’t your strong suit, it will be when this class is finished. I took this class not knowing what to expect, or what I would get out of it, but I did it because I’ve always enjoyed writing, and [prison] is boring, LOL. But I’m glad I did it. I enjoyed it from start to finish, and if you are serious about pursuing your education, you will enjoy it as well. And I’ll leave you with this: just spend 10 cents on this class, and when you’re finished, you’ll get a dollar change.

Ali, Class of Fall 2020

Well, if you’re reading this, you’ve made it. Yeah, cliché-ish, right? Well, this time it’s the truth! You’ll be introduced to numerous authors and people who weren’t afraid to stand up and tell the world their thoughts, feelings, and desires. By the end of this class, your name will be added to the people who’ve found their voice. This class is a safe zone where you can express yourself without judgment and with support. I’m honored to call you my future fellow alumni—welcome! Let this part of your history begin.

Dominee, Class of Fall 2019OBB Instructor Kevin Mullen with OBB student Dominee

Thank you for volunteering to participate in what I hope will be, and I know most definitely can be, one of the most exciting, rewarding, and challenging opportunities you’ll ever experience on this side of the fence.

While the class overall helped to re-ignite my love and passion for writing, it was the in-class exercises that helped me the most. Through them, I began to overcome an extremely horrible habit, one that was responsible for killing the very joy I was just speaking of – I’m talking about editing and re-editing a work while I’m doing it. This class and our, now your, instructor, as well as everyone who volunteers (the tutors, other teachers, the librarians, and other research staff – everyone) are wholly committed to your success and you will be extremely hard-pressed to find a greater group of people.

I pray that you make the most of this opportunity, that you hold nothing back and give your all to the process – if you do, I promise that not only will you learn, but just as importantly, you will grow.

To the class of 2020, it’s your turn – go get it.

Brandon, Class of Fall 2019

OBB classroomI know you are probably thinking that you don’t know what to expect from this class. Truth be told, I didn’t really know what to expect either, and when I signed up for the class, my main thought was that it would just be something to keep me busy until I went home on release. Not only did it keep my busy, but I actually enjoyed the class and looked forward to coming every week. My professor, Kevin, brought an amazing energy to the class and all of my classmates helped to maintain and increase that energy throughout the entire class period. No one was judgmental and everyone had a story to tell. Hopefully, this class gives you the confidence to tell your story and gain effective writing techniques and skills. If nothing else, just the confidence to put your thoughts and your understanding down on paper and then work from there. Always remember, writing is “blank.” “Blank” is an inside joke and if you take the time to appreciate and enjoy this class as I did, then you will understand “blank” too.

Go and be great.

Carl, Class of Fall 2019

OBB student Carl LewisEmbark on a journey of enlightenment: a journey with a force of loving, caring, and supportive people eager to guide you. So think not of the challenges you may face, but the wonderful adventure Odyssey has in store for you. Take this opportunity, as I had, to explore the depths of knowledge bestowed by the likes of MLK, James Baldwin, George Orwell, Toni Morrison, etc. Be open-minded and allow the fascination of their thoughts provoke the thinker, writer, and intellectual within you. Now git on wit it!

Robert, Class of Fall 2019

Congratulations on being accepted into the class. It’s been an enlightening experience for myself. I took this class in the hopes to be able to better craft my writing skills. I feel that along the way, I’ve found a personal sense of connection to famous writers and my fellow classmates. I found it refreshing to listen to people share their writings and get a perspective of where they were at at the moment they were writing about. I was impressed by the level of creativity everyone showed. I enjoyed the fellowship I felt while being involved in the course. I encourage everyone to have and keep an open mind. Challenge your own perceptions and prejudices.

I am truly grateful to have been able to take part in this class. Thank you to the teacher and tutors for thinking enough of me to take time away from your lives to help me grow. It may seem silly, but this class really came through for me at a time in my life when I was beating myself up with remorse. Thank you for including me and showing me love. I really needed it and felt it throughout the class. Best wishes to all.

Edward,  Class of Spring 2021

Inspired by “Who Understands Me but Me” by Jimmy Santiago Baca

I’ve Been Here Before

This hot, sweltering, 8×11-foot cell,
I’ve been here before
voices get close, cool breeze,
caressing my face as I kneel,
close to the floor,
talking through the vent, I stop…
footsteps in the dark
soft soles, heartbeats
I hear voices whispers, scents,
Somali rose, perhaps frankincense
I stand up, up, up
straighten my back, crack my spine
and step right four steps
left one, forward three steps
and I watch my window view is clear
no birds perched on my windowsill here
no grass to be seen

I’ve been here before.
The darkness is my friend
I reach out, grasp at air
and then I stare, silhouette, blurred vision,
screams at a distance
and I sit…
no, I lay

I’ve been here before, I just can’t remember when
I slip off into a slumber
as my days grow numbered but I persist,
no I resist
for I have been here before,
the belly of this beast
in the cell I grow weak
before at least I fall asleep.

Randy, Class of Fall 2020

Solitary Education

Incarcerated in solitary confinement
I traveled in convoy page by page,
visiting historical places,
Psychological consequences.

I tread light over the “Origin of Species,”
and thumb through miles of chapters,
as long as the Nile
when it ran along ancient Egypt
before the Greek conquest of Kemet.

I sit with the facts of
“The Stanford Prison Project”
A captive.
And rule with kings, modern and medieval:
Christian, Turkish, and Islamic in nature,
I highlight pharaohs that look like me,
taking in similarities of the recurring absence
of my identity,
tearfully turning torn pages of
indigenous people colonized into slavery,
I exercise my findings, cross-reference facts
and question the substance,
from which motivated the writing.

I twist my fingers together around the writing utensils,
Studying the streets of Spain and Mexico,
Learning “hay que rico” from Puerto Rico and
“Chingar” from Mexico.
Estoy aprendiendo mucho por mi mismo,
I still have some ways to go.

I traveled roads of common travel and explored
those less mentioned.
At night I sleep with the sounds of Australian prisoners
banging steel,
And wake with the sounds of Martin, Malcolm, and
Nelson pacing back and forth in their cells,
searching for freedom . . .
through the stories of their reality,
I escape mine.
In solitary confinement.

Dominee, Class of Fall 2019

(Photo by Bryce Richter /UW-Madison)

I am prisoner and jailer,
Liberator and liberated.
I am the holder
Of the keys
And choose for myself which doors
I open and close in my life.
I am a flower,
you don’t want me
so you call me a weed.
I love me.
I am a flower.

Edward, Class of Fall 2019

(Photo by Jeff Miller / UW-Madison)

I used to be free-falling snow
Swirling everywhere, finally
lying upon the ground.
But I’ve now become a strong
Building in size as I roll in a
positive direction.
Acquiring knowledge
solidifies me to be
Strong willed, never to again be melting
Flakes upon the ground.

The posters below are products of Odyssey Beyond Bars’ first-ever enrichment class–in poetry–at Columbia Correctional Institution (CCI). These short poems and poetry excerpts serve as a glimpse into the experiences, interests, and even personalities of our students. The full-size posters are on display throughout the CCI education building and as slides on the institutional book channel.

OBB students; poetry poster

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