The Yale Prison Education Initiative Celebrates its First Commencement

Photography Credit: Associated Press

On June 9, 2023, Dwight Hall’s Yale Prison Education Initiative (YPEI), through its partnership with the University of New Haven, held its first commencement ceremony at the MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution in Suffield, Connecticut. Seven students graduated with associate degrees in general studies awarded by the University of New Haven (UNH). Of the seven graduates, six are currently incarcerated. 

YPEI was founded at Dwight Hall in 2016 by Zelda Roland ’08, ’16 Ph.D., and offered its first credit-bearing Yale courses and programming to incarcerated students in Connecticut in 2018, which marked the first time any incarcerated student had ever been able to earn a Yale credit. YPEI classes are taught by Yale faculty, replicating the rigor, courseload, and expectations of courses taught at the University. In 2021, a transformative $1.5 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and a partnership with the University of New Haven allowed the program to expand to begin offering UNH courses and college degrees to students in prison. The number of classes offered annually increased from four to more than 30, with all Yale credits earned by students now transferring seamlessly towards their UNH degrees. 

The program has continued to grow, bringing on staff members Vanessa Estimé, who serves as Assistant Director of YPEI, and Tracy Westmoreland, who works as a Transfer Coordinator and as the Site Director at Danbury federal prison, where YPEI launched new programming for incarcerated women in October 2022. By the end of summer 2023, the program will have engaged 93 students in credit-bearing coursework since its inception.

Hosting a commencement ceremony in prison presented a unique and exciting challenge. “We spent months planning this graduation with staff and students and thinking of the ways we could bring in components of a conventional graduation,” noted Zelda. “We wanted to do the best that we could to celebrate our students within the limitations established by the correctional facility,” described Vanessa. 

In the end, the celebration was hosted in a visiting room at MacDougall-Walker, complete with decorations, flowers, a podium, and a blue backdrop for photos. The graduates wore caps, gowns, and stoles and were cheered on by their families and friends, YPEI and UNH faculty and staff, and other YPEI students. Notable individuals in attendance included Governor Ned Lamont, the commencement speaker; Sharon Kugler, the outgoing Yale University Chaplain who also delivered an invocation at the graduation; Sheahon Zenger, the interim president of the University of New Haven; and Sharonda Carlos, the Connecticut Department of Correction Deputy Commissioner.

Needless to say, the June 9th graduation was many years in the making. Noted Zelda, “these particular graduates didn’t just graduate from this program–they built it.” Four of the seven graduates had been taking classes with YPEI since 2018. Back then, YPEI was only allowed to offer a limited number of classes in prison, and just 12 students were admitted to the first cohort to take Yale Summer Session courses. “These students understood that they were signing up to be a part of building something really exciting, and doing that in partnership with YPEI and Dwight Hall. . . For the students who graduated, this commencement was a celebration of dreaming something together and making it happen.”

All seven graduates gave individual speeches at the graduation, reflecting on their experience of taking college courses in prison and its effect on their personal journeys. “What struck me was the fact that the graduates made mention of their classmates in their speeches. . . It really represented how much the community means to the graduates,” reflected Vanessa. “What makes this program so special is the fact that it is a brotherhood.”

Afterwards, Governor Lamont delivered the commencement address, in which he took the time to respond to each of the graduates individually. YPEI staff emphasized the impact that his attendance had on the graduates. Noted Tracy, “for students, it was the cherry on top that this is legitimate; you’re getting your degree and the government is here to recognize that.” Zelda added, “the governor heard each of their remarks and then responded and addressed each graduate by name. It was extremely powerful that he was there to listen to, support, and thoughtfully engage our students.” Governor Lamont noted in his remarks that it was the most moving graduation ceremony he had ever attended.

In line with bringing in traditional elements of graduation ceremonies, Zelda and Vanessa also chose to hand out awards for students’ outstanding achievements. Some of the honors included an award for academic achievement, awarded to the student with the highest GPA; a Spirit of UNH award given to the program’s first graduate who finished his degree in December; and the Dwight Hall Award for Community Engagement, which was awarded to Marcus Harvin. 

“Marcus has been out of prison for a bit now, and he has kept the door open for everyone behind him,” emphasized Zelda. “He was our YPEI College-to-Career Fellow, and he has continued to work in service of the community.” Marcus is now working toward his bachelor’s degree on campus at UNH, and is also a UNH President’s Public Service Fellow this summer. In the future, he hopes to become a defense attorney.

For students like Marcus who have been released, the partnership between Yale and UNH enables them to enroll immediately at UNH to finish their degree. “We support students with the application process, getting health records, and all kinds of things on top of that,” explained Tracy. “Students can also apply to the YPEI College-to-Career Fellowship, which is a great opportunity that allows them to be on Yale’s campus and have their basic needs met while they pursue their goals.”

For YPEI, this commencement is the first of many to come. Until the next celebration, YPEI is hard at work. In June alone, the program admitted a new cohort of incarcerated students, hosted an orientation, and started its summer session courses. Recent Yale grad and Dwight Hall alum Emme Magliato ’23 also joined YPEI staff as a Program Assistant through a one-year fellowship. 

In July, the federal Department of Education is reinstating long-awaited access to Pell grants for incarcerated students across the country, and University of New Haven is participating as an approved prison education program, so that YPEI-UNH students will be able to utilize federal student aid toward their college education. Despite its participation in “Second Chance Pell”, the program remains committed to admitting students without regard to their Pell eligibility, which means that it will have to continue to raise funds through private grants and donations to support its growing operation.

“We’re always thinking about ways to sustainably grow the program and bolster reentry services,” emphasized Zelda. “YPEI wants to be able to serve more students, perhaps at more sites, but only once we know we’re stable at the sites we do have. . . It’s always exciting to bring new faculty, centers, and programs into the conversation.”

You may contribute to the Yale Prison Education Initiative at Dwight Hall here.

Read and view press about the commencement below:

“Yale, University of New Haven partnership celebrates first degrees awarded to inmates” – Associated Press

“Earning a degree, and a sense of freedom” – Yale News

“University’s Prison Education Program and Yale Prison Education Initiative Celebrate First Graduates” – University of New Haven

“Yale, UNH prison education partnership ‘transformative,’ inmates and professors say” – New Haven Register

“‘I hope he heard us’: Lamont attends graduation at Suffield prison” – CT Mirror

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