For women in prison, degree program creates new life pathways

A Yale and University of New Haven collaboration offers the only four-year college degree program at any federal prison for women in the United States.
Incarcerated woman with tattooed hand holding a copy of the book “Future Shock”

Literature and the Future” required students to read 13 books over the course of the semester, including Alvin Toffler’s 1970 non-fiction book. (Photos by Allie Barton)

Karmen Englert was in college in South Dakota when, in 2008, her mother died of a drug overdose.

I left, took off like a nomad, started selling drugs, and got in a lot of trouble,” she said.

Now incarcerated at the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury, Connecticut, Englert, 39, was recently able, after many years, to pick up where she left off. She’s in her second year of studies in a degree program co-run by the Yale Prison Education Initiative (YPEI) and the University of New Haven and the only four-year college degree program currently running at any federal prison for women in the United States.

Last fall her course load immersed her in philosophy, psychology, and futuristic literature. Studying can be a challenge amid the din of a prison — Englert blocks out distractions by listening to music on her headphones.

But it’s put her on a path toward a long-term goal: becoming an advocate for the incarcerated.

I’ve learned a lot about myself, and the teachers have opened up a lot of doors for me that I don’t think I would have found otherwise,” Englert said. “They’ve made me believe I could be something other than what I always thought I was — a criminal.”

Founded in 2016, the Yale Prison Education Initiative at Dwight Hall initially offered liberal arts courses, taught by Yale faculty, to men incarcerated at the state-run MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution, the largest prison in the Northeast, in Suffield, Connecticut.

Then, in 2021, with the support of a $1.5 million grant from the Mellon Foundation, YPEI in partnership with the University of New Haven began offering degree programs at the prison. All of the students’ Yale credits transfer toward associate’s and bachelor’s degrees from the University of New Haven.

YPEI expanded to the Danbury facility in the fall of 2022 after the prison’s education supervisor reached out to Zelda Roland, ’08, ’16 Ph.D., the program’s founder and director.

The program is proving transformative for all involved, Roland said.

It has the potential to change these women’s trajectories, and to make a generational impact,” she said. “It is changing our Yale students and faculty who participate in the program, as they find that their on-campus teaching and learning is richer as a result.

And of course, we are changing what is possible inside of a prison, staking space and ground for higher education. Not just credits and degrees, but a real liberal arts community that is thriving.”

View of trees from the window in a prison visitation room.
From their desks in the Danbury facility’s large visitation room, the students can see the rolling hills beyond.

They start to dream out pathways’

The Yale Prison Education Initiative is part of the Consortium for the Liberal Arts in Prison, a national program dedicated to the premise that academic standards and expectations in a prison setting should be just as rigorous as on the participating universities’ main campuses.

Many studies have shown that access to higher education in prison results in lower rates of recidivism and a higher likelihood of employment. A 2021 study of the impacts of the Bard Prison Initiative, which has operated through Bard College since 2001, found that participation in the program resulted in a 38.6% drop in recidivism across students of all races.

Based at Dwight Hall, which is a 501(c)(3) non-profit, YPEI draws financial support from private grants, individual donations, and, through University of New Haven Financial Aid, Pell grants, the federal tuition aid for low-income persons, for those students who are eligible.

Yale also subsidizes the program, which now includes partners from across the university campus. Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences provides one paid faculty member per semester to teach at either MacDougall-Walker or Danbury. Student teachers from the Yale Graduate School of Arts and Sciences also offer courses through a professional development opportunity. And the Yale School of Art contributes more than $20,000 annually to support a competitive fellowship for graduates of the Master of Fine Arts program to teach art courses in prison over the summer.

Additional faculty members are paid through funds raised through Dwight Hall or the University of New Haven.

The University of New Haven, in addition to providing faculty for the program, administers the Pell grants, and handles student enrollment and the transfer of any prior credits, and provides regular student support, advising, library and success resources. Students who are released from prison prior to completing their degree are able to continue on campus at the university.

About 20 students are currently enrolled in the program at the Danbury prison. Another 12 will be accepted during the next round of admissions before this summer, Roland said.

As part of the admissions process, students fill out an application that includes a series of short-answer questions and an essay prompt. (They must have a high school diploma or a G.E.D. to be considered.)

Woman writing in notebook
The academic expectations for the students are as rigorous as on Yale’s main campus.

We ask, what’s your highest educational ambition? What’s your dream job?” Roland said. “We love asking those questions because a lot of times students have never had the opportunity to answer them before. They start to dream out pathways for themselves.”

About half of the applicants are invited to an interview before a committee comprised of YPEI staff, program faculty, and formerly incarcerated alumni determines the final admissions.

Erin Smolin, who applied for the program in 2022, remembers how nervous she was when she was invited for an interview.

It was the first professional interview I’ve ever had in my life,” she said.

The committee asked her to tell them about a book that had left a lasting impression. She chose “Where the Crawdads Sing,” the 2018 novel by Delia Owens, and a lively conversation ensued.

I really think that book is what got me in,” Smolin said.

Students have a choice of up to seven classes offered by Yale and UNH each semester; they may take up to five classes at a time. Earning an associate’s degree requires fulfilling 60 credits; a bachelor’s degree is 120 credits. The first degrees at Danbury are expected to be awarded this spring, with a ceremony later in 2024.

Women in prison uniforms laughing
The degree program “has the potential to change these women’s trajectories,” said YPEI founder Zelda Roland.

Now that I’ve been given a chance, I won’t go back’

One afternoon in November, nine women in tan uniforms took their seats in the Danbury prison’s large visitation room for “Literature and the Future,” a course taught by R. John Williams, an associate professor of English and film & media studies in Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

After returning graded essays to the students, Williams opened the discussion of that week’s assignment, “Future Shock,” the 1970 non-fiction book by Alvin Toffler.

In many ways, the class functioned like any other. Williams stood at the front of the room, book in hand, asking questions and moderating the discussion. Students took turns reading from the text and offering their interpretations. Whenever Williams jotted down a new term or concept on the large whiteboard, the students dutifully copied it into their notes.

Yale Professor R. John Williams jots notes on a white board.
Yale Professor R. John Williams jots notes on a white board, one of the few teaching tools at his disposal.

Like the students who take the same course on Yale’s campus, the Danbury students read 13 books over the course of the semester, write 25 pages over three essays, and are expected to join class each week prepared to engage in discussion.

But teaching and learning in a correctional institution, even a low-security facility like this one, comes with considerable constraints. Access to the Internet, laptops, or cell phones is prohibited. And Williams is not allowed to bring in any sort of audiovisual equipment.

We’re using the text, we have a good dictionary and a whiteboard,” said Williams, who has taught at Yale since 2009. “I can bring in a handout, but it’s very old school.”

The students must handwrite their essays; they rely on Wite-Out to correct errors. To obtain research materials for their papers students must fill out request forms that are then forwarded to trained student volunteers at Yale. The volunteers tap into Yale’s library databases to track down materials that are most relevant for the students’ requests and then deliver them to the prison. The turnaround takes about a week.

The constraints are pretty intense for these students,” Williams said. “But they bring a real focus and desire to the classroom that is admirable, especially considering the hostility of the environment they’re in, the stresses that they go through. The fact that they are bringing this much dedication and earnestness to the project is inspiring to me.”

Many of the usual institutional academic supports for students are provided by Tracy Westmoreland, the program’s site director at Danbury. Westmoreland acts as an academic advisor, financial aid liaison, volunteer scheduler, career counselor, and last-minute researcher for students who need help. And once the students are released from prison, Westmoreland works with them to find a place to continue their education.

I’m like a little mini dean,” he said. “I’m trying to offer emotional support and academic support.”

Tracy Westmoreland and YPEI students
Tracy Westmoreland, in the center, the YPEI’s Danbury site director, acts as a “mini-dean,” providing academic and emotional supports.

Danbury prison administrators and staff are “incredibly supportive,” he said, and even allowed for a recent concert by an experimental performance group led by Randall Horton, a professor of English at the University of New Haven who was previously incarcerated.

Stormi Ingle, another student enrolled in the program at Danbury, attended that show. During a Q&A session afterward, she told Horton how inspiring it was to see a formerly incarcerated person who is now a tenured college professor. She has the same aspiration.

Ingle estimates that she spends about 24 hours a week on assignments for her three YPEI classes. Completing the course work is so invigorating, she said, she regularly shares what she’s learned with other inmates, as well as family members. (Her mother, proud of Ingle’s studies, recently bought a Yale sweater.)

Before her experience in the program, Ingle said, “I didn’t know that I was smart, if that makes sense. I had self-doubt.”

Anna Ivy, another student, said a college degree was never something she even considered, given a childhood marked by abuse and, later, her own heroin addiction. In a conversation last November, just a day before her release from Danbury, Ivy said that YPEI had given her “a purpose,” and that she would continue to work toward a degree after she returned home to Arkansas.

Addiction made me feel helpless,” she said. “Now that I’ve been given a chance, I won’t go back.”

Michelle Beagle, left, and Anna Ivy in a “Literature and the Future” discussion.
Michelle Beagle, left, and Anna Ivy in a “Literature and the Future” discussion.

Another student, Michelle Beagle, still has 10 years left on her sentence. In the meantime, she’s throwing herself into her studies; at 45, she has only just discovered how much she loves to write. She hopes one day to work as a drug and alcohol counselor.

Education has given her and her fellow students a sense of self-worth, Beagle said.

I see women here carry themselves differently now,” she said. “We’re good people who made bad decisions.”

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