YPEI graduation marks first B.A. presentation in a Connecticut prison

Last week, 12 incarcerated students received degrees at a ceremony held by the Yale Prison Education Initiative at Dwight Hall and the University of New Haven.
Yale Prison Education Initiative graduate applauding at the ceremony

(Photos by Karen Pearson)

Last week, a program led by the Yale Prison Education Initiative at Dwight Hall (YPEI) and the University of New Haven (UNH) held a graduation ceremony at a Connecticut prison, at which 12 incarcerated students received degrees.

During the ceremony, held on May 17 at MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institute in Suffield, Connecticut, 10 graduates received Associate of Arts (A.A.) degrees and, for the first time in the program’s history, two received Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) degrees.

It marked the first-ever bachelor’s degree ceremony held in a Connecticut prison.

Zelda Roland ’08, ’16 Ph.D., who founded the Yale Prison Education Initiative, called it a historic milestone for the program, which offers incarcerated students access to Yale credit-bearing classes, equivalent to on-campus courses in rigor, course load, and expectations. Last fall, for the first time, the program offered a bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies, awarded by UNH.

(Photos by Karen Pearson)

We are so proud to celebrate our graduates’ incredible accomplishment, as well as this historic milestone for the program,” said Roland. “YPEI went from being a highly unlikely, long-shot idea, to offering our first credit-bearing course offerings in 2018, to now, our first B.A.s in this profound and historic moment.

This program is not just about the credits and degrees we offer — it provides a network of support, resources, and community that have the power and potential to change people’s lives and trajectories, while they’re in prison and beyond. It makes a generational impact, and it makes an impact inside prison, in our communities, and on our campuses.”

Since its founding in 2018, the Yale Prison Education Initiative has become 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.)

All 10 A.A. degree recipients recognized during last week’s ceremony graduated with High Honors. Two of the A.A. graduates earned 4.0 GPAs, making them co-valedictorians. One of the B.A. recipients graduated cum laude and the other magna cum laude. A graduation address was offered by the poet and essayist Claudia Rankine.

And in a series of speeches, the graduates described the life-changing consequences of their experience.

One graduate named Michael described his newly earned degree as “arguably the most unlikely success of my life.” He also contemplated what it means in the context of the mistakes he’s made in the past.

Now, the good I’ve done may not wash out the bad, but the bad sure as hell doesn’t wash out the good either,” he said. “We are more than the sum of our parts. I might have failed at a lot, but I’ve succeeded at a lot too, and here’s the proof. So the next time you’re tempted to ask yourself if it matters, remember: it all matters.”

This was the second graduation ceremony for the program, which conferred A.A. degrees on seven graduates during its first-ever commencement last spring. That celebration was also the first-ever college graduation at MacDougall-Walker, a maximum-security correctional facility for adult men and the largest prison in the U.S. Northeast.

The program this year also awarded the first A.A. degrees at the Danbury federal women’s prison, where it is currently offering the only college program available for incarcerated women in any federal prison in the U.S. These first degrees will be celebrated in a graduation ceremony next year.

In one speech, a graduate named Khari reflected on the transformative effect of the program.

Being in the YPEI-UNH program created an opportunity to challenge myself, to grow into a version of myself I never thought possible,” he said. “I embraced the challenge and it sparked my imagination into the possibilities of what could be. I believe education is the key to any meaningful change.”

The work required in the program was grueling, and sometimes overwhelming, added Khari. But he also “never felt such a sense of accomplishment or fulfillment as when I received my grade at the end of a semester.”

And every semester, I walked away learning an important fact,” he said. “What I thought I knew is nothing compared to what can be learned.”

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