The Oakhill Prison Humanities Project was created in 2013, and has been the gateway to education and change for many individuals. It all began in 2005 when two graduate students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, began teaching a poetry class at the Oakhill Correctional Institution. This facility is in Oregon, Wisconsin just twenty minutes south of the UW campus, and in the years following 2005, more and more graduate students began holding workshops at the institution. The classes slowly adapted into topics focused in the humanities, and then in 2013, several grants were received and The Oakhill Prison Humanities Project was officially formed.
Today, the program has expanded and is led by UW graduate students, faculty, and community partners who each volunteer their time to teach a course with a specific focus. The courses change depending on interests and availability, but some of the courses taught include poetry, creative writing, African-American Studies, fiction reading, and other literature and cultural studies.
Oakhill Correctional Institution is a minimum-security men’s correctional facility with men ranging from the ages of 18 to 80. Through the eight week courses that are taught, many of the inmates have stated that their time in the classroom helps remind them who they are as humans. The volunteers typically do not know what the students are in the correctional facility for, but sometimes through the coursework, participants open up. It is the volunteers’ goal to create a safe space and bring material for the participants to engage in and discuss. However, most of the work is up to the students. One notable project was the grouping of artwork that created the “Artists in Absentia.” The exhibition featured writings, drawings, and music, and more, and was showcased in Madison Public Library in 2016.
If you want to get involved with the Oakhill Prison Humanities Project, there are many opportunities to volunteer or donate! More information is on their website:
Written by Rachel Lentner, Associate Director of Community Outreach