Caption: Students from OBB’s English 100 course at Oakhill, spring 2022
In May, Odyssey Beyond Bars (OBB) concluded an incredible semester of growth in which we offered courses in three new prisons, in addition to multiple courses at Oakhill Correctional. I had the joy of touring the state and attending final class sessions for each of these courses. In typical Odyssey style, each course ended with triumphant student presentations and graduation celebrations and, when the prison would allow it, cake.
Our experiences at the new prisons reinforced our conviction that UW–Madison must expand its involvement in the prisons and encourage other schools to join us. Students at Green Bay, Columbia and Racine Correctional spoke with devastating frankness about the importance of the class in their lives and their sadness about the class ending. One student compared himself to the lead character in Daniel Keyes’s Flowers for Algernon, who found life-changing consciousness for a time but ultimately lost it when his circumstances changed. Another student told me that prior to the start of class, he hadn’t voluntarily left his cell in three years due to severe depression. Only the prospect of higher education drew him out, and he credited the class with saving his life.
Such testimonials show us that we have much more work to do. Access to higher education remains limited in the prisons, and college degree pathways are not available to all. Odyssey Beyond Bars is a start, not an end, and we need to provide avenues for all our alumni to continue their education.
However, these testimonials also show the boundless dedication of our instructors and students, who make the OBB experience special. These courses are working to change students’ perspectives on who they are and what they can do, and our students naturally want more because great education ignites intellectual curiosity. As usual, our students are pulling our program forward. It is up to us to feed the flame now burning in each of our alumni and keep them marching toward a college degree.
Director, Odyssey Beyond Bars
Cofounder, UW Coalition for Higher Education in Prison