Odyssey Beyond Bars (OBB) is now operating in four prisons across the state, and as we and other prison-based programs expand, we often encounter the same question from our students as they contemplate their academic journeys: “What’s next?”
For some lucky students, the next steps are clear. The prison where they live might offer an associate degree or certificate program in coordination with a technical college, and the students’ college jump-start experience in Odyssey Beyond Bars helps them build the skills and confidence they need to succeed in one of these programs. Indeed, several of our alumni have already taken this path.
For other students, next steps are filled with uncertainty and pitfalls, and those challenges are often deepened when a student leaves prison to reenter their community. Those of us without incarceration experience might imagine release from prison to be a time of jubilation, but the reality is far more complicated. Adjusting back to families and neighborhoods and careers takes courage and patience, and long-term goals frequently take a back seat to more immediate needs like stable housing, medical care, and employment.
Still, our alumni can succeed upon reentry with proper support, and OBB alum Mark Español, pictured above with Professor Kevin Mullen, is living proof. Within weeks of returning home, Mark won a Moth storytelling event, spoke to a US senator about the importance of higher ed in prison, found a job and applied to take more classes at UW-Madison. We applaud Mark’s achievements and want to do more to foster similar success stories among our growing alumni community.
To that end, I am happy to announce that Odyssey Beyond Bars recently received a Baldwin Wisconsin Idea Endowment Grant that will enable us to hire a success coach to support our program alumni who leave prison and wish to continue working toward a college degree. Because so many of our alumni return to Milwaukee County, our coach will be based in Milwaukee and will work with local nonprofit reentry service providers like Partners in Hope to make sure our reentering students have the holistic support they need to achieve their academic goals. We thank UW–Madison for its commitment to the Wisconsin Idea, which holds that the university’s resources should be used to benefit all the citizens of the state, no one excluded.
Last but not least, our expansion this semester would have not been possible without the dedication and support of the education staff on site. We would like to acknowledge the hard work of Education Director Nathan Kennedy and his education staff, Tony Churchill and Bill Dempsey, at Columbia Correctional; Education Director Dr. Miranda Schornack and education staff Joshua Harmon and Aaron Weber at Green Bay Correctional; Education Director Daniel Derler at Racine Correctional; and Education Director Kevin Grahn and education staff Jenny Simpson at Oakhill Correctional. Their behind-the-scenes efforts to encourage and support OBB students helped to make this semester a huge success.
Director, Odyssey Beyond Bars
Cofounder, UW Coalition for Higher Education in Prison