Odyssey PEI student gazing up and smiling in classroom

Prison Education Initiative

The UW–Madison Prison Education Initiative (PEI), led by the Division of Continuing Studies and the School of Education, gives learners who are incarcerated in Wisconsin state prisons the opportunity to reframe their futures through higher education.

Students who take college courses while in prison are more likely to be successful when they return to our communities and less likely to return to prison.

The Prison Education Initiative helps build brighter futures, safer communities and a stronger workforce for Wisconsin.

Students in the UW–Madison Prison Education Initiative at Oakhill Prison

What does the Prison Education Initiative do?

The PEI coordinates and supports UW–Madison’s educational programs in Wisconsin state prisons and associated research.

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UW degree and certificate programs

The PEI connects efforts across UW–Madison and Universities of Wisconsin to create collaborative UW degree and certificate programs, supported by a Workforce Innovation Grant from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation.

College preparation and college jump-start courses

Odyssey Beyond Bars (OBB) has offered English 100 as a college jump-start course to students in Wisconsin prisons since 2019. UW–Madison also offers noncredit enrichment courses through OBB and the Wisconsin Prison Humanities Project, encouraging and preparing students to pursue higher education.

Student and alumni wraparound support

The Prison Education Initiative offers wraparound support to students before, during and after their enrollment in UW–Madison courses. This support includes tutoring and academic and career advising to help students on their individual paths to success.


Researchers in the School of Education and School of Medicine and Public Health, supported by the PEI, are measuring the impacts of prison-based education. The data they collect are helping the Prison Education Initiative expand and improve educational opportunities for our students in prison.

What makes the Prison Education Initiative unique in Wisconsin?

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Robust, in-person student support

In addition to in-person instruction, the PEI provides a broad spectrum of academic assistance to students, face-to-face inside the prisons. Supports include tutoring, financial aid and academic advising, one-on-one mentoring, reentry planning to help students prepare for transition back into the community and alumni support after students return home. This robust wraparound support is inspired by the whole-student approach of the UW Odyssey Project, which has helped adult students living in poverty transform their lives through higher education since 2003.

A learning community

The Prison Education Initiative programs surround students with positive peers, advisors and role models. Together, students help each other uncover their potential and transcend negative patterns and influences. The result is a growing body of students who see themselves as productive, healthy citizens with hope for the future.

Research to improve our work

The PEI supports needed and important research on pedagogical approaches and learning outcomes as well as the impacts of college education on the mental health of incarcerated learners. This research will help UW–Madison and other colleges offer more effective programs in the prisons.

Why higher education in prison?

Men gathered in a classroom in a correctional facility listen to a fellow classmate who talks behind a podium.
  • Almost all people in prison will eventually return to their communities. Participation in prison-based education reduces the risk that a student will commit new crimes and return to prison by about 40 percent, helping to stabilize individuals and families, prevent cycles of crime and create safer communities.
  • Prison education increases the odds of employment after people leave prison, contributing to the economy and helping employers fill workforce gaps. PEI programs are built in accordance with employer demand for specific workplace skills.
  • Studies show people in prison want educational programs. The PEI provides a supportive, education-focused community to help learners thrive.
  • Prison education saves taxpayer money. It costs approximately $40,000 to incarcerate someone for a year in Wisconsin. The RAND Corporation found that every $1 spent on prison education saves $4-5 in reincarceration costs.
  • Prison-based education reflects the Wisconsin Idea that the university should address the needs of the state and benefit all Wisconsin residents.


Gunce Derin

Position title: PEI Program Coordinator

Email: gderin@wisc.edu

Adam MacKay

Position title: PEI Site Coordinator

Email: adam.mackay@wisc.edu

Bryn Martyna

Position title: PEI Operations Director

Email: bryn.martyna@wisc.edu

Peter Moreno

Position title: Director, Prison Education Initiative
Director, Odyssey Beyond Bars

Email: peter.moreno@wisc.edu

Phone: 608-262-4555

Kyle Walsh

Position title: PEI Site Coordinator

Email: kpwalsh@wisc.edu

Phone: 608-498-0220

Prison Education Initiative, University of Wisconsin–Madison logo