Earning a degree, and a sense of freedom
As processional music played, university leaders and faculty entered the graduation hall, dressed in the regalia that signified their academic achievements and fields of study. Then came the seven graduates in their black robes, mortarboards, and blue and gold stoles, and the audience rose to their feet, applauding. Family members wiped away tears.
It was a commencement ceremony like any other — flush with joy, pride, and a celebratory sense of achievement. But it was also a ceremony unlike any other. Because for these graduates, obtaining a degree meant more than just an academic accomplishment — it meant, as one student put it, a kind of emancipation.
This graduation took place on a summer Friday in the visiting room of MacDougall-Walker, a maximum-security correctional facility for adult men in Suffield, Connecticut. The graduates, all currently or recently incarcerated, represented the inaugural cohort of an associate degree program run in partnership by the Yale Prison Education Initiative at Dwight Hall (YPEI) and the University of New Haven.
To mark the occasion, the visiting room had been transformed into a celebratory space. A blue curtain behind the lectern covered the white cinderblock walls; a large basket of blooms — purple globemasters, yellow roses, daisies, orange and blue gladiolus flowers — brought the florescent-lit room a sense of sunshine.
Among the dignitaries taking their seats at the front of the room were Sheahon Zenger, the interim president of the University of New Haven, who would confer the degrees; the Connecticut Department of Correction Deputy Commissioner Sharonda Carlos; and Governor Ned Lamont, the commencement speaker.
Yale Chaplain Sharon Kugler — in one of her final official appearances before her retirement —stepped to the lectern. “Today we gather in deep gratitude,” she said. “We give thanks for what has been unlocked in this place of enclosure.”
A transformative expansion
Founded by Zelda Roland ’08, ’16 Ph.D, the Yale Prison Education Initiative has offered Yale credit-bearing classes, equivalent to on-campus courses in rigor, course load, and expectations, since 2018. The program quickly became a leader in the movement to reinvigorate liberal arts instruction in correctional institutions. (The program belongs to the Bard Prison Initiative’s national Consortium for the Liberal Arts in Prison.)
In 2021, the program underwent a transformative expansion: supported by a three-year, $1.5 million grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, YPEI in partnership with the University of New Haven (UNH) began offering an associate degree in general studies. The Yale credits students had previously earned were transferred toward the degree, which is awarded by UNH.
During the 2022-23 academic year, 32 credit-bearing courses were taught at MacDougall-Walker by faculty from both Yale and UNH — a dramatic increase from the four it typically offered before the grant. “It changes the way a program like this can operate when it’s not just one class one night a week,” said Roland, who directs the Yale-UNH partnership with the help of Michael Rossi, associate dean of UNH’s College of Arts and Sciences.
“We are able, through the partnership with the University of New Haven, to offer a rigorous, year-round, full-time program for incarcerated students,” she said.
“To be in prison, and then to have an Ivy League institution come in there and educate you, it doesn’t even seem real,” said Marcus Harvin, a graduating YPEI student. “We go to those classes, and it doesn’t even feel like you were in prison.”
Higher education in prisons offers practical benefits: research has shown that such programs greatly reduce the risk of recidivism in those who are released. But it also offers an opportunity to engage with talented and eager students, many of whom may have experienced systemic educational inequity, both before and during incarceration.
“These students have a real intellectual spark,” said Sarah Mahurin, the dean of Timothy Dwight College and a lecturer in English and African American studies in Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, who also teaches courses through YPEI. “Our program didn’t create that — it gave it a structural home and a place to go, but it didn’t make them gifted. It gave their giftedness a channel where it could be more meaningfully expressed and nurtured.”
“There are no awkward silences in that classroom,” said Caleb Smith, a Yale professor of English and American studies who has taught at MacDougall-Walker since its inaugural summer session and who, in fall 2023, will become chair of the YPEI faculty advisory committee. “In some ways the discipline of teaching in that context is to prepare minimally enough so that there’s room for the students to generate ideas and the flow of the conversation.”
Support for YPEI extends across the Yale campus. Several offices and programs — including Dwight Hall, the President’s Office, the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, the Center for the Study of Race, Indigeneity, and Transnational Migration (RITM), the Yale Divinity School, and the Yale School of Art — fund fellowships for undergraduate and graduate students to work with YPEI. Through the Yale University Library, incarcerated students can access library resources and make research requests, and an academic strategies peer mentor is funded by the Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning.
“We have someone there three times a day, five days a week, offering different classes, extracurriculars, advising structures, student support services,” Roland said. “We have Academic Strategies Program mentors from Yale, writing tutors, math tutors. We have folks from the libraries at both universities coming in to help students with library resources.”
The program currently has just under 40 active students at MacDougall-Walker; each year, about 100 inmates apply for about a dozen spaces.
With support from the Mellon grant, YPEI also established a new academic program at a federal women’s prison in Danbury, Connecticut — the first of its kind at the site — and hired two new staff members (Vanessa Estimé, YPEI’s assistant director, and Tracy Westmoreland, its Danbury site director and transfer counselor). And starting this fall, the YPEI-UNH program will also offer a bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies.
Coming full circle
Marcus Harvin, who grew up in New Haven’s Newhallville neighborhood, enrolled in YPEI in June of 2021, as part of the first cohort under the YPEI-UNH partnership.
The intensity of the coursework through YPEI, Harvin said, offered a chance to broaden his idea of his own capabilities. “They don’t dumb down the workload — they hold you to the same standard,” he said. “I was able to learn how to learn.”
On his release from prison, in 2022, Harvin enrolled in UNH to finish his associate degree. He also received YPEI’s College to Career Fellowship, based at Dwight Hall, which was established with the support of the Mellon grant. The two-year fellowship is open to alumni of any college-in-prison program and matches fellows with a host site, at either Yale or UNH, for professional development and mentorship opportunities.
“I think of this as a little bit of a Fulbright for formerly incarcerated alumni,” said Roland. “We’re giving them time and money to be able to explore academic passions and to participate in campus life.”
Harvin is also a fellow in the Access to Law School Program, at Yale Law School’s Law and Racial Justice Center, which is designed to provide support through the law school application process for New Haven residents who are first generation, low-income, formerly incarcerated, or members of an under-represented racial group.
“My grandmother passed away in February 2021,” Harvin said. “My grandmother made me promise her before she passed away that I would go back to school, get my degree, and become a lawyer. Now I’m able to fulfill that promise to my grandmother.”
Harvin, the only 2023 YPEI graduate not currently incarcerated, walked in UNH’s commencement at the end of May but obtained special permission to return to MacDougall-Walker to also participate in the ceremony there.
“It’s a full circle thing,” he said.
The tireless support of Roland, Estimé, and Westmoreland has been crucial, Harvin said. “That’s like Jordan, Pippen, and Rodman right there. You’re gonna get some championships out of a team like that.”
“They have a relentless will to make the world better, even for people that the world thinks are bad people,” he said. “They don’t see that — they just see the potential.”
Coordinating the UNH/YPEI commencement ceremony at MacDougall-Walker became a communal process.
“We sat down with our students many times in the last year to think about, what do we want? What would you like to have? What would this look like?” said Roland. “And, of course, we worked with the facility to see what’s possible.”
The small graduation cohort meant that each student had the opportunity to speak — to reflect on meaningful texts, the possibilities their studies had broached, and, as graduate Evan Holmes poignantly put it, the “concrete ceiling” that they had reached.
Alpha Jalloh, the class’s valedictorian, spoke of his childhood in the South Bronx, the poorest congressional district in the country — where he said the possibilities seemed restricted to “prison or pine boxes.”
“I am the first person among my friends to get a college degree,” he said. But, he pointed out, “True change can only happen when we dream big and dream different.”
He turned to speak to his fellow graduates, as well as the other YPEI students witnessing the commencement along one side of the room. “Use learning to empower yourselves, my beautiful brothers,” he urged them. “The world needs each and every one of your voices.”
Smith and Mahurin joined many other Yale faculty and staff at the ceremony — including professors Roderick Ferguson, Paul North, Greta Lafleur, Timothy Snyder, and Paul Tipton, and librarian Emily Horning, the director of library support for YPEI.
“I’m so excited to see our students in their regalia, because the way that our students have been identified by their clothing has been by prison uniforms,” said Mahurin, who was chosen by the graduating students to receive an award for teaching. “The idea of the uniform of incarceration being transformed, even if temporarily, into a uniform of academic and intellectual achievement, I find that really profound.”
Following the conferral of awards and degrees — every graduate received high honors, reflecting at least a 3.5 GPA, and the highest honor conferred with the associate degree — the seven students together moved their mortarboard tassel from right to left.
“I’m overwhelmed with joy,” said graduate Maurice Blackwell. “It’s the best day of my life.”
Surrounded by friends, family, and his teachers, Holmes couldn’t stop smiling. “I feel like I won the Super Bowl,” he said. He had been part of YPEI’s inaugural class in 2018.
“It changed me,” he said. “I’m a forever learner.”