A UW education program for those incarcerated offers a new direction

Kalli Anderson

Ramiah now works for EXPO, which stands for Ex-Incarcerated People Organizing. EXPO works with both policymakers and formerly incarcerated people to fix a broken justice system and reconnect people with their communities. Photography by Kalli Anderson

As Ramiah Whiteside logs onto Zoom, a grainy photo of his granddaughter born on Sept. 9 pops up as his profile picture. His laugh fills the cyberspace as he describes that although her family showers her with tons of attention, right now, she only cares about sleeping and feeding times.

But Whiteside hasn’t always been able to be with his family during these important moments. He learned about the birth of his first granddaughter in 2014 through a paid phone call from the inside of Fox Lake Correctional Institution.

In 1995, Whiteside was in a high-speed chase with the police that ended in a collision that killed four people — one of them was his younger family member. Imprisoned at 19 years old, Whiteside, now 46, spent 24 years on the inside for four counts of second degree reckless homicide, one count of reckless injury and one count of operating an automobile without the owner’s consent.

During that time between 1995 and 2019, Whiteside says he felt emotionally, mentally and spiritually like he was in “the bowels of a slave ship.”

“It wasn’t until the restorative justice process [that] it really started to resonate that I can be a better person… I can be more than who I was yesterday today.”

— Ramiah Whiteside

Then, 21 years into his imprisonment, Whiteside found retired talk show host Jean Feraca at the Wisconsin Resource Center. At that time in 2016, Feraca was teaching her first class at the resource center through the Prison Ministry Project. The project, run by the First Congregational United Church of Christ in Madison, directs restorative justice programs that work to mend the relationships between those who have committed crimes, those who are impacted by them and the greater community.

Being allowed to take part in restorative justice programs was the ray of light Whiteside needed to come back from the brink of hopelessness and despair while still being held accountable for his actions.

“It wasn’t until the restorative justice process [that] it really started to resonate that I can be a better person,” Whiteside says. “I can be more than who I was yesterday today.”

Education in prisons decreases the likelihood of recidivism — or the likelihood that a formerly incarcerated person, once released, will offend again.

In one study from the Journal of Experimental Criminology, authors found that people who participated in education programs while incarcerated were 28% less likely to recidivate versus those who did not participate. Further, research from the American Enterprise Institute think tank found that education in prison increases the likelihood of those formerly incarcerated in securing jobs, a tough feat for those who were incarcerated.

Further, according to the Sentencing Project, a research and advocacy center working to reduce incarceration in the U.S., Wisconsin has one of the worst racial disparity rates in the country, with one out of every 36 Black Wisconsinites being imprisoned. The state is also one of seven that maintains a nine to one Black/white disparity rate in who is incarcerated.

“Most people, if given a chance, are more than ready to change their lives and change their direction…. And education is essential to that. It’s the key.”

— Jean Feraca

Realizing that people who are incarcerated need to have their personhood and inner intelligence recognized inspired Feraca to start teaching noncredit classes in prisons. For her first course, Feraca opened up with Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” an allegory about those incarcerated. Whiteside has vivid memories of this story, which took root in how he approached his everyday life and how he differentiated reality from perception.

Feraca then continued on to other philosophers that taught her students how to think and find out what’s most important to them. She adapted the curriculum used at the UW Odyssey Project — a program she cofounded that she says works to “break the cycle of generational poverty” in Wisconsin — into her classes in prison. Feraca believes society should stop leaving those incarcerated in the dark, and calls it a “terrible tragedy” that the United States incarcerates more people than any other country in the world.

The UW Odyssey Project offers four core programs for low-income children, adults and those incarcerated facing economic and other barriers to education by offering a six-credit, two-semester humanities course that analyzes literature, philosophy, history and art. The program aims to strengthen students’ writing abilities and critical thinking skills.

“Most people, if given a chance, are more than ready to change their lives and change their direction,” Feraca says. “And education is essential to that. It’s the key.”

Odyssey Beyond Bars grew out of Feraca’s efforts to introduce humanities-based noncredit classes to students in prison. The program which recently received the Wisconsin State Public Defender’s Eisenberg Award for its work — seeks to enlighten minds that may otherwise become stagnant in the confines of a roughly 54 square-foot prison cell by providing for-credit college courses in humanities subjects like English and Afro-American studies.

Carl, a student in Kevin Mullens first English 100 class at Oakhill Correctional Facility in Fall 2019, learns how to strengthen his writing abilities and raise his confidence. Photo courtesy of Chris Bacarella

Professor Kevin Mullen consults with a student in his English 100 class at Oakhill Correctional Facility in Fall 2019. Photo courtesy of Chris Bacarella

Odyssey Beyond Bars founder and director Peter Moreno started the program in 2018 to provide a chance to those who are imprisoned at Oakhill Correctional Institution, a minimum-security prison in Oregon, Wisconsin, a suburb of Madison.

“Our students are so often labeled as inmates, offenders or worse, and when they are able to finally see themselves as students with long-term goals, their lives are transformed,” Moreno wrote in an email. “This program is about establishing personhood in places where humanity is often checked at the door.”

In the classroom, students are required to complete assignments, work on their public speaking skills and be vulnerable with their classmates.

“I could tell that there was this hunger, this huge desire to have intellectually-engaging conversations around deep ideas, talk about texts and write together,” says Kevin Mullen, co-director of the UW Odyssey Project.

In Oakhill’s library on Tuesday afternoons, Mullen brings this program to life for 15 men. When he asks his students to share their writings with each other, they get straight to work.

“I’ve been teaching for 20 years, and I have yet to find students who are more enthusiastic, driven and focused than these guys.”

— Kevin Mullen

“As a teacher, I can’t think of a better classroom to be in,” Mullen says.“I’ve been teaching for 20 years, and I have yet to find students who are more enthusiastic, driven and focused than these guys.”

Mullen started teaching for the program in fall 2019, in what he says was the first for-credit in-person class UW–Madison has offered in prison in more than 100 years. In his English 100 class, he teaches students how to write confidently and comfortably while also connecting to other men.

“[When] you get a chorus of voices together, they connect to each other, they hear each other, they recognize each other,” Mullen says. “The librarian at Oakhill [said to me], ‘One of the great things that I saw you doing that I think is so important is that you made them feel heard.  Most of these guys don’t feel like their voices are heard and they knew you were… hearing them. I mean, that makes a difference.’”

Although when Whiteside was a student he didn’t consider the possibility of staying in touch and supporting his classmates after his release, he still goes back to the prisons to visit with the friends he made in Odyssey and other restorative justice programs.

Whiteside states that he is not the “exception” but instead the “norm” of students who have received education through programs like Odyssey Beyond Bars, and Mullen agrees that education has an immense impact on recidivism rates.

“I 100% believe that a program like this, or more access to education in prisons in general, has a positive impact,” Mullen says. “And I do think it will lower recidivism rates as individuals are released and find a way forward in society.”

Whiteside also pushes the idea that if people who are released intentionally stay plugged into their community, this will reduce recidivism as well.

Whiteside practices what he preaches. He works for WISDOM and EXPO, two organizations he says work to revamp “the systems that historically have led to mass incarceration, excessive supervision, felon disenfranchisement or marginalization of people.”

Whiteside plans to graduate from the University of Northern Iowa at the end of next year with a degree in psychology, and he is deciding whether or not to attend graduate school in the future.

While education opportunities for those imprisoned are on the rise — such as Odyssey Beyond Bars opening up three programs at Racine Correctional Institution, Columbia Correctional Institution and Green Bay Correctional Institution in spring 2022 — Feraca advocates wholeheartedly for introducing more programs and classes into prison.

“It’s a shame and a disgrace,” Feraca says. “And when you have the opportunity as I’ve had to find out who’s in prison, you realize how much we’re missing as [a] society. There is so much potential there. We’ve just ignored, overlooked and discounted so much of it.”