The People

About Our Participants

The most important agents of the OPHP are the individuals who attend the classes. At Oakhill, participants are writers, rappers, musicians, scholars, farmers, businessmen, fathers, husbands, and much more. They are men between 18 and 80-something in age. Some are there for several months; others have been in the system for thirty years. Because the identity of the participants is as a writer, scholar, artist, or musician (whatever they have the bravery to lay claim to) volunteers usually do not know, and never ask, what they are serving their sentences for. Sometimes, however, after continued participation in the classes, students will reference the actions that led to their sentence, which have ranged from non-violent drug-related offenses to property crimes to homicide. Though they come from widely varied backgrounds, one thing almost all of them express is that the classes help them be more honest with themselves and help to remind them of who they are as humans. The classes and volunteers do that by holding a safe space with well-defined boundaries and by bringing in engaging materials, but the participants do much of the remaining work. For some participants, that has meant writing around the acts for which they are serving time, the lives they led before being sentenced, the lives that are going on outside without them, and the lives they hope to build or resume following their release. For others, that work means a deep focus on craft, close reading, or expanding themselves as creative artists. For others still, this process  has meant writing to their parents, their partners, or their children with more openness and expressivity. For most, it means getting to experience their peers and themselves as writers and men in the classroom in a different way than they experience each other/themselves on the yard. Frequently these new or changed peer relationships carry over outside of the classroom, and many participants share their writing, readings, and thoughts about both with each other between classes.

Oakhill Volunteers

Oakhill Volunteers participate in a roundtable discussion hosted by the Center for Russia, East Europe, and Central Asia. From left to right: Sergey Karpukhin, Janelle Pulczinski, Colleen Lucey, José Vergara, Judith Kornblatt, Zachary Rewinski, Ronald Kuka. Photo credit: Maria Vishnevsky

About Our Volunteers

Nick Knittel facilitates classes on poetry and narrative.

Ron Kuka has co-facilitated the Fiction/Memoir class and is a Faculty Associate & Creative Writing Program Coordinator at the UW-Madison, where his teaching has been recognized with the Chancellor’s Hilldale Award for Excellence in Teaching.

Claire Mason is a Phd student in Interdisciplinary Theatre Studies at UW Madison. She has been teaching Drama and Performance at Oakhill since July 2015 and currently serves as the Project Coordinator.

Michael McDaniel teaches American Indian Literature, Composition and other courses in the English Department at Madison Area Technical College. At Oakhill he has led classes on creative writing and the short story.

Janelle Pulczinski has a Master’s Degree in English, a Master’s Degree in Near Eastern Languages and Cultures, and is currently working towards a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She has led a reading group which discussed novels and short stories and examines how those stories speak to the experiences of students. Janelle secured a grant through the University of Wisconsin Madison’s HEX program to buy books for the Afro-American Studies class and for the reading group.

Zachary Rewinski is a graduate student in the Slavic department at UW Madison. Zachary has taught several courses on world literature and creative writing at Oakhill.

José Vergara is a Ph.D. candidate completing a dissertation in the Slavic Department at UW-Madison. He has been teaching classes on literature and creative writing at Oakhill since May 2011 and served as Project Coordinator from July 2014 through August 2015. He is currently organizing a large, traveling exhibit featuring the work (texts, music, drama, art) of men from Oakhill.

Marc Kornblatt, director of Dostoevsky Behind Bars (Photo credit: Wisconsin State Journal)

Marc Kornblatt, director of Dostoevsky Behind Bars. Photo credit: Wisconsin State Journal

Notable Visitors

In addition to exceedingly generous instructors, we have also brought wonderful visiting writers, community members, and academics to the classes to share their love of writing and to hear the writing of the men. Every visitor has (unprompted) said that the experience was extraordinary; those who teach say they wish their students had the same level of enthusiasm and insight, and all comment on the talent of the participants. Some notable visitors have included:

Marc Kornblattactor, documentary filmmaker, playwright, author, and school teacher, who directed Dostoevsky Behind Bars and other socially relevant documentary films with Refuge Films. 

Jeremy Morris, Assistant Professor in the Media and Cultural Studies department, who was instrumental in documenting the music, spoken word, and other aural components of the Artists in Absentia project.

Wendy Vardaman, author of Obstructed View and co-editor of the online and print publicationVerse Wisconsin.

Previous Volunteers