Krista Uelmen from Krista & The Morning Rush spoke with Kevin Mullen, Assistant Professor & Co-Director of the UW Odyssey Project, and Mark Español, Odyssey Beyond Bars Alumni & DJ. The episode can be accessed here:
See the transcript below:
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Krista: It is a pleasure and honor to bring you both to the show. Kevin, what first made you interested in teaching in prison? Can you tell me a bit about Odyssey Beyond Bars and the UW Odyssey Project?
Kevin: Odyssey has been around for the last 19 years. It offers free two-semester humanities courses for low-income adults. It is a jumpstart program to help people continue their education. It has grown over the years. We have different parts of the program. One of them is Odyssey Beyond Bars, which I hold very close to my heart. We have been teaching non-credit courses in the prison since 2015, and we started credit-bearing courses through UW-Madison in 2019.
What made teaching in the prison appealing is working with adults who have the desire and passion to continue pursuing their education. Students like Mark are honestly some of the best students I ever had and I have been teaching for over twenty years because they put all their time and energy into really grappling with the texts, doing the assignments.
Krista: Mark, what is it like taking the class in Oakhill? Can you just describe the overall environment in the classroom, the assignments, your classmates, and anything that really sticks with you right now?
Mark: I took several classes before Odyssey but Odyssey by far was the best experience I have had. What it did to me, changed my life. It made me more ambitious to continue forward with my education. After taking the class, I made the decision to become a social worker. The experience of me being in prison, I don’t want to be just that. I need to be able to help others with my stories and everything that I went through.
Odyssey by far was the best experience I have had. What it did to me, changed my life. It made me more ambitious to continue forward with my education.
In prison, you really don’t trust many people. The creative writing class brought everyone’s vulnerability out. Our class became a family. We listened to each other’s stories. We cried in class. We gave it all. A lot of people have powerful stories and funny stories, and through those stories, we got to know each other at a personal level, which is something we don’t usually do in prison. In prison, you spend most of your time being standoff-ish because most people fear that that is what you have to be. But it is really not that. There are a lot of programs offered and if you are sitting just doing time, why not do something productive that makes you feel good?
The creative writing class brought everyone’s vulnerability out. Our class became a family. We listened to each other’s stories. We cried in class. We gave it all.
At graduation, I told a story about when I was five years old, and a lot of people gravitated to that story and it allowed the administration–the Warden, the Secretary (Department of Correction)–to look at us as just being humans. We have gone through a lot of things that got us into prisons. We are trying to work our way out so that society notices as someone who has worked hard and has potentials. Prison does not have to always be our story. We have the ability to look up and look forward and keep going.
Krista: What kind of support does Odyssey offer to the alumni, especially after individuals are released?
Kevin: We are trying to build a network of alumni who have taken the class in different prison locations–we are now in four prisons across the state. We can help them connect to each other. As more and more of our students are released, we aim to provide wraparound support such as writing support, financial aid support, academic advising, to help them navigate the intimidating landscape of higher education. We don’t want to be prescriptive, but to support people the best we can, regardless of the pathway they choose to pursue.
Krista: I love that Mark is going to be a social worker. You are going to be fabulous. So the tools that you learned are everything, when you are going out and taking the world like this.
Mark: The encouragement that this class has given you allows you to push forward. Because it wasn’t easy when I came home. I will give you an example. I was offered the position as the head security in two establishments in Madison. I brought it to my PO and my PO said “You can’t work there because they serve alcohol.” But alcohol had nothing to do with why I got in trouble! Classes made me strong inside so I can look at the situation and say “You know what? I will find another job. You are not going to stop me from moving forward. And guess what? I am going to be starting classes in September!”
Krista: What do you think about pursuing a college degree before taking those classes and what do you think now, especially with the goals for your future? It sounds like you already have your future planned out.
Mark: Before Odyssey, I did not have a specific plan as far as a degree or a career. But once I took the class, I started learning about people like James Baldwin, Joan Didion, and Toni Morrison. These phenomenal people have stories. They went through issues and they pushed forward. I remember when I first read one of James Baldwin’s pieces, I got mad because I have never heard of him. Here I am, I am 44-years-old and I am learning about one of the greatest men I have ever read about. Never met the man but he had impacted me. All those writings impacted me. My teacher impacted me. Everyone who came there and gave their time just to make sure we got through this class and just to show us that we are all worth more and we are able to do more. That is going to remain in my life forever.
Everyone who came there and gave their time just to make sure we got through this class and just to show us that we are all worth more and we are able to do more. That is going to remain in my life forever.
Krista: Kevin, when you look at Mark and many of your students, what does it say to you?
Kevin: What it says to me is that every individual has a voice, and the ability to get their thoughts out there in a way that will impact the world around them. If you can just provide the structure of support around people, they will pursue something because they have the passion, drive, and clarity. Just to be able to find a way to help people move forward is a terrific thing to do. I just love being a part of the process.
Krista: Kevin, how can people get involved and support the Odyssey Program?
Kevin: I would start with the website odyssey.wisc.edu. There is information about the history of the project, the people involved. You can read samples of students’ writing. But you can also find the volunteer page if you have a certain set of skills. For example, we are always looking for writing tutors as we expand. And of course, you can donate money and time. In our community classroom, we have people donate entire meals because we eat together before class. There are many ways to get involved and we are a growing program.
Krista: I am so glad that you are here and I am so glad that I had the opportunity to learn more about it and to share this with the community. I know you have got a lot of people showing you love right now, listening, so again thank you for everything you are doing.