The Yale Prison Education Initiative Awards 12 Degrees and Hosts the First-Ever Bachelor’s Degree Ceremony in a Connecticut Prison

Photography Credit: Karen Pearson

May 17, 2024, marked a profound and historic celebration for the Yale Prison Education Initiative at Dwight Hall (YPEI), which hosted its second-ever commencement ceremony and the first-ever bachelor’s degree ceremony held in a Connecticut prison. Ten incarcerated students were awarded associate degrees by the University of New Haven in the ceremony at MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution, while two students were awarded bachelor’s degrees–the first B.A.s conferred by the program. 

About the Yale Prison Education Initiative

YPEI was founded at Dwight Hall by Zelda Roland ’08, ’16 Ph.D. in 2016 and offered its first credit-bearing Yale courses and programming to incarcerated students at MacDougall-Walker prison–a high/maximum security state prison for men–in 2018, marking the first time any incarcerated student had been able to earn a Yale credit. 

In 2021, a transformative $1.5 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and a partnership with the University of New Haven (UNH) allowed the program to expand to offer UNH courses and college degrees to students in prison. 

A member of the Bard Prison Initiative’s national Consortium for the Liberal Arts in Prison, YPEI focuses on extending access to a liberal arts curriculum, with courses taught by Yale and UNH faculty and affiliates, replicating the rigor, courseload, and expectations of courses taught on campus at Yale and UNH. The classes range in topic from sociology to physics and from chemistry to painting.

In October 2022, YPEI expanded to the women’s low-security prison at Danbury Federal Correctional Institution in Connecticut, launching what is currently the only college program offered to any women in any federal prison in the United States. In spring 2024, YPEI is also awarding its first associate degrees at Danbury, where YPEI will host a commencement ceremony in 2024-2025.

2024 Commencement Awards 12 Degrees at MacDougall-Walker

Despite the limitations inherent to organizing a graduation in prison, the May 17th ceremony was replete with elements of a traditional commencement, from the gowns, caps, honors cords, and stoles that the graduates wore to the photo backdrop where students posed with their professors and family members. Omer Bajwa, Dwight Hall Board Member and Director of Muslim Life at the Yale Chaplain’s Office, delivered the invocation at the ceremony. 

One graduate, who also attended last year’s commencement, built the beautiful wooden podium used during the ceremony in his carpentry workshop at the prison. The podium features an intentionally changeable plaque showcasing the current year so that it can be reused at future YPEI-UNH graduations. 

Zelda and Vanessa Estimé, Assistant Director of YPEI, emphasized the importance of prioritizing students’ voices during the ceremony. Seven graduates addressed the audience at the May 17th commencement, speaking about what it meant to be receiving a degree through the program.  

When recalling the themes that arose in the students’ speeches, Vanessa noted “Each speech was a reflection on the student’s past, present, and future as it related to their educational journeys, personal development, and growth. . . Each student shared a glimpse of their inner thoughts on this grand occasion of graduating and receiving their degree, as well as the implications of this moment for them, for other students in the program, and for the choices they will make in the future.”

Claudia Rankine, acclaimed poet and playwright, served as the commencement speaker and intentionally asked to deliver her address after the student speakers. What follows is an excerpt from her speech: 

“There are times in all our lives when the weight of our circumstances threaten to crush our spirits and break our hearts. We have all faced obstacles that seemed insurmountable; we have all felt like giving up, but each of you, by being here today, have proven that you can refuse to let your circumstances define you even after being sentenced. You knew that gaining knowledge was the key to unlocking a better life, not just for yourself, but for those in community with you. You have set an undeniable example for family members and friends. While here, each college credit you earned toward your degree was a milestone, a triumph over adversity and a testament to the power of education to transform lives.”

“It was very moving,” said Zelda of Claudia’s address. “She wanted to go after the student speakers so that she could listen to them first and then adapt and respond to what they were saying, and that’s exactly what she did.”

Reflected Vanessa, “I thought that was a very personal move on her end and one that our students greatly appreciated. She named every student who graduated, and noted that their family members had been waiting for this moment as well.”

The ceremony also took time to recognize the outstanding academic and personal achievements of YPEI’s Class of 2024. All 10 of the A.A. graduates received high honors, and the two B.A. recipients graduated cum laude and magna cum laude, respectively. Two A.A. graduates tied for the Academic Achievement Award and valedictorian slot, both holding 4.0 GPAs, and two Polymathic Prizes and a Spirit of YPEI Award were also presented. 

The Spirit of UNH Award was given to one of the B.A. graduates, who also earned the prize last year as one of YPEI’s first A.A. graduates. His incredible achievement was underscored by his induction into Alpha Sigma Lambda, a national honor society for adult learners.

Finally, the faculty prize was determined by a vote of the graduating class and was awarded to Professor Elizabeth Hinton, who previously taught African American Studies at YPEI and is teaching Introduction to Interdisciplinary Studies this summer. 

Additionally, the program is exploring ways for the B.A. graduates at MacDougall-Walker to continue their engagement with the program, whether that be through serving as tutors and mentors to current YPEI students or potentially pursuing graduate-level studies.  

“We are so proud to celebrate our graduates’ incredible accomplishment, as well as this historic milestone for the program,” said Roland (YaleNews 2024). “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.”

Summer 2024 Programming Offers New Courses across Academic Disciplines

Amidst the excitement of commencement, YPEI also completed its latest admission cycle, enrolling a new cohort of 12 students at MacDougall-Walker and two additional cohorts at the women’s low-security prison and women’s camp at Danbury. More than 80 students will be actively enrolled in programming by the start of summer 2024. 

Summer programming will be filled with a plethora of interesting courses, including global philosophy, chemistry, college mathematics, English, academic writing, women’s literature, and a writing and grammar workshop. Students will also be offered a painting basics course and two sections of graphic design, made possible through YPEI’s partnership with the Yale School of Art’s Art and Social Justice Initiative, which grants graduating MFA students fellowships to teach art in prison. 

YPEI’s work embodies the Advance pillar of Dwight Hall’s Engage, Grow, and Advance program delivery model. YPEI effects lasting change in the lives of its participants and the larger community while transforming Yale’s campus and leading the way in prison education nationwide.

YPEI’s extensive programming is made possible through the work of staff members Zelda Roland; Vanessa Estimé; Tracy Westmoreland, Site Director at Danbury; and Emme Magliato ’23, YPEI Program Assistant.

Learn more about YPEI and contribute to advancing prison education here

Related Press

“YPEI graduation marks first B.A. presentation in a Connecticut prison” – YaleNews

“’Unconventional college students’: How 12 maximum-security CT prisoners earned Yale credit, UNH degrees” – CT Insider

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