Mail-in Workshops, a $1.5 Million Mellon Foundation Grant, and a Pandemic: How the Yale Prison Education Initiative has Adapted, Improvised, and Grown since March 2020

Zelda Roland, Director of Yale Prison Education Initiative (YPEI) and Director of the University of New Haven Prison Education Program, remembers the transition well. The week of March 9th, 2020, she read the email that Yale College sent to undergraduates, advising them to take necessary belongings home with them in case of a delayed return to campus. Following the email, Zelda said, “I went into the prison on March 11th and sat down with all the students. I told them, ‘We’re facing the possibility of a prolonged lockdown. How would you want things to go?’”

zelda and james
Zelda and James Jeter, the co-founders of YPEI, posing in what will become a full citizen’s coalition space. Photo Credit: Clyde Meikle.

YPEI’s students are incarcerated at Connecticut’s MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution, the high-/maximum-security state prison that ultimately became Connecticut’s COVID prison, the place where the state’s COVID-positive incarcerated individuals have been housed. Since Summer 2018 at MacDougall, YPEI has offered in-person Yale Summer Session courses for credit to students on topics ranging from Latin and creative writing to sociology, visual thinking, philosophy, and physics. The program has adapted to prison lockdowns in the past, re-arranging course dates around weeks when the prison would close. Would this lockdown be any different?

When she spoke to them, “the students were skeptical,” Zelda said. She remembers them telling her, “You’re not used to lockdowns, but we are,” and “This isn’t going to be different from the obstacles we already face.” Zelda discussed the possibility of a US Postal Service correspondence-based curriculum. The next morning, “We got an email from the Department of Corrections that all programs would be suspended until further notice.” Zelda sent a letter to all YPEI’s students. She told them, “We’re going to try and figure out what to do. Let us know if you have problems or questions and if there are ways we can support you. We don’t know what’s going to happen.”

What happened was that YPEI, as it has done since its inception, improvised and grew. YPEI undergraduate volunteers Ananya Kumar-Banerjee `21, Minh Vu `20, `26 Ph.D., and Gabrielle Colangelo `21 organized a Creative Writing Workshop that ran entirely by mail. In collaboration with writers from across the country such as Hanif Abdurraqib, Franny Choi, Alexander Chee, and Chen Chen, YPEI created course packets with self-guided creative writing units. Other offerings included a seminar-style correspondence-based reading of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, a series of readings that complemented the PBS programming students could watch on televisions in their cells, and a unit of readings on the subject “Food Politics.” The incarcerated students would complete the units on their own and then mail in their progress. Daily, Zelda trekked to Old Campus to check the mail for student responses. She would scan the students’ work into an online folder that professors could access and re-upload once they had given YPEI students their feedback. Zelda would then print this feedback and mail it back to the students. “We turned the office into a mail station,” Zelda said. Sometimes, there were 20 letters a day.

Course materials shipped to YPEI students

Between March 2020 and May 2021, YPEI ran everything by correspondence. YPEI students have no access to email, to the internet, or at the time, even to virtual meeting platforms like Zoom or Microsoft Teams. Where the rest of the world adapted to the lockdown with the help of an internet connection and video streaming technology, YPEI used the postal service. Of this time early in the pandemic, Zelda said, “We were very active just trying to serve the students…We tried to meet the need and desire that our students had to stay engaged.”

This dedication to continuing to offer resources and support was essential to serving a community that often go unseen and unheard. When Zelda reflected on the necessity of YPEI’s work, she spoke of the trauma and heightened isolation many of the students felt because of the pandemic. Not only were they no longer able to access in-person classes, but they also lost access to each other. If students were housed in different units in the prison, they could not see students in other units. Many of them contracted COVID, and many lost family members in the pandemic. “We had students who were working as nurses helping other people with COVID. They were deeply isolated from their family and from each other,” Zelda said.

The Creative Writing Workshop offered some solace. Reflecting on the impact of YPEI’s workshops, one student said, “[W]hat I’ve learned throughout my education at YPEI, sadly, is voices like mine do not exist or matter in recorded history or canonical literature. Knowing that, seeing that, and being a victim of that drives me to use every medium available to me to break the silence. In this way, YPEI’s creative writing course, by far, serves me as the best — and the only — way … to speak truth to power.”

YPEI art
This piece was a collaboration between MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institute inmates Shawn and Justin, the latter of whom participated in a Yale Prison Education Initiative creative writing workshop over the summer. The illustration is by Shawn; Justin contributed to the concept. 

Amidst responding to student needs during the pandemic, in March 2021, YPEI was awarded a $1.5 million grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation which allowed the program to expand its education resources and programming. YPEI partnered with the University of New Haven to extend accredited course offerings year-round and to offer Associate’s degree tracks to incarcerated students. “In September,” Zelda said, “We’re starting a full semester of UNH classes.” With the UNH partnership, “We can bring more resources and classes to students. … Right off the bat, we have students that are more than halfway to their Associate’s Degree. That is really exciting.”

Summer and Fall 2021, Zelda said, have been dedicated to successfully expanding YPEI’s resources to students at levels that supersede even the program’s pre-pandemic offerings. Where YPEI offered about four Yale credited classes a year, they are now planning to expand their course offerings to 15. This summer, YPEI offered five classes: “Education and Empire,” an Education Studies seminar taught by Talya Zemach-Berskin; a Physics course taught by Professor Paul Tipton, who also serves on YPEI’s Faculty Advisory Committee; a seminar called “Medicine and the Humanities;” a section of “English 120: Reading and Writing the Modern Essay” taught by Briallen Hopper and with former Dwight Hall Summer Fellow and PhD Candidate Minh Vu serving as a Teaching Fellow; and an “Introduction to Graphic Design” course, a part of YPEI’s collaboration with the Yale School of Art’s Art and Social Justice Initiative.

This fall, through the collaboration with the University of New Haven, YPEI is offering “Principles of Communication,” a seminar in Academic Inquiry and Writing (like English 114); Microeconomics; a follow-up Graphic Design course; and an Ethnicity Race & Migration Seminar.

With more courses, YPEI is also expanding its student body — a new cohort was admitted in July 2021 — and working to install a computer lab at MacDougall so students can have access to a word processor for essays and so they can learn computer literacy. The Mellon Foundation grant has also allowed YPEI to hire an Assistant Director, Vanessa Estimé, to help spearhead the program’s expansion. She comes to YPEI with years of experience working in higher education and community agencies and is excited to lend her skills and talents to this cause.

In order to best serve incarcerated students and others coming home, YPEI is rethinking how to offer the typical resources found on a college campus. One such resource innovation that Zelda is particularly excited about is the College-to-Career Fellowship program, which will provide one to two years of funding for recently released degree alumni of college-in-prison programs (not just from YPEI)  to work on Yale or UNH’s campus. With people who are getting out of prison, Zelda said, “The re-entry centers aren’t always prepared to bring them into the types of jobs they may want or be equipped for. Our thinking is that there are students who are poets, sociologists, and interested in physics and then they get out of prison and don’t have the opportunity to pursue these academic interests.” By creating the College-to-Career Fellowship, justice-impacted students who have earned their degree and show great promise will have access to an academic community of resources to propel them forward in their career path. 

“From the very beginning of this program, a very core mode of being has been improvisation and flexibility,” Zelda said. Even before the pandemic, YPEI adapted to the unexpected: prison lockdowns, student transfers, and sometimes, unexpected student releases. Responding to a global lockdown for over a year required reimagining resources and adapting to provide them. With the Mellon Foundation grant, YPEI has been able to reimagine how it would grow. Increased student body. Increased classes. Increased campuses. Increased resources.

The pandemic underscored the vital role that Dwight Hall and YPEI play in supporting incarcerated students’ right to self-determination. Dwight Hall celebrates the leaps of progress that YPEI has achieved and welcomes Vanessa as a new Dwight Hall staff member. Programs like YPEI ensure that incarcerated students have a voice and are an integral part of the change that happens here.

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About the Author

Lydia Burleson

Lydia Burleson served as the Communications and Alumni Engagement Associate for Dwight Hall at Yale, Center for Public Service and Social Justice from June 2021-June 2022. A first-generation low-income student from rural Texas, Lydia graduated from Yale cum laude in 2021 with a degree in English and a nonfiction creative writing concentration. During her college years, Lydia increased awareness of marginalized voices with the public writing she did for The Yale Daily News and the Yale Admissions office. Her Dwight Hall experiences included free college advising with student-led member groups REACH and Matriculate. Dwight Hall empowered Lydia to uplift other disadvantaged students and to increase access to education for people who might not have otherwise received these resources. She is currently completing an English PhD at Stanford University with a Knight-Hennessy Fellowship.