When I don't write, I feel my world shrinking. I feel I lose my fire and my color. It should be a necessity, as the sea needs to heave, and I call it breathing.
-- Anais Nin

What We Do

Current Offerings:

The Writers in Prisons Project is no longer active, but many of its former instructors continue to facilitate classes at Oakhill, and some are now participating in the Oakhill Prison Humanities Project.

Project History:

In 2005, Ray Hsu and Marianne Erhardt, graduate students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, started teaching a poetry writing workshop at Oakhill Correctional Institution in Oregon, Wisconsin. After co-teaching the class for several months, both graduated and moved on: Ray to a postdoctoral teaching position at the University of British Colombia, and Marian to a position with The Sun Magazine.

In 2007, Laurel Bastian, a poet and teacher in Madison, restarted the class with help from poet J.D. Nordell. Over the next several years, Laurel and many others have continued and expanded the range and scope of the course offered, and Laurel eventually founded the Writers in Prisons Project as a loose umbrella organization for the several courses being taught at Oakhill Correctional Institution, including some courses led by UW-Madison graduate students which were supported by Humanities Exposed grant funding from the UW-Madison Center for the Humanities. From its birth, the Writers in Prisons Project relied on the involvement and ideas of dozens of writers, readers, and scholars in the community, as well as the active participation and involvement of hundreds of the courses' incarcerated participants. The collective of writers on the "outside" who made up the Writers is Prisons Project focused on bringing in additional visitors and instructors from the community and the academy and sought to make their classes as rich, engaging, and varied as possible.

Late in 2011, Laurel stepped down as the lead volunteer coordinator, and was replaced by Steel Wagstaff, who served as the lead coordinator for Writers in Prisons Project Courses and the primary contact person for prison administration.

In 2013, Judith Kornblatt, the retiring chair of the Slavic Languages and Literature department, received several grants to foster humanities education programming at Oakhill. In September 2013, the Oakhill Prison Humanities Project was formed with the help and support of several longtime Writers in Prisons Project volunteers, a former Writers in Prisons Project volunteer (Naomi Olson) was hired with grant funds to serve as project coordinator, and the Oakhill Prison Humanities Project gradually became the de facto administrative organization coordinating the courses which had been a part of the Writers in Prisons Project.