The Yale Prison Education Initiative Celebrates One Year of Teaching Courses to Women in Danbury Federal Prison

In October 2023, Dwight Hall’s Yale Prison Education Initiative (YPEI) celebrated the one-year anniversary of its program at the low-security women’s prison in Danbury Federal Correctional Institution in Connecticut. Since 2018, YPEI has offered credit-bearing Yale courses to incarcerated individuals at MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution, a high/maximum security state prison for men. Unlike many other prison education programs across the country, which offer technical or vocational training, YPEI (which is a member of the Bard Prison Initiative’s national Consortium for the Liberal Arts in Prison) offers a wide variety of liberal arts classes, with the same syllabi and professors as classes offered at Yale and the University of New Haven. The classes cover topics from sociology to physics, and include immensely popular Yale courses like English 120, Reading and Writing the Modern Essay.

Last year, YPEI expanded to a second site for women at the federal prison in Danbury. The opening of a second site not only marked a major step forward for the growth of YPEI, but also made history; YPEI’s program is currently the only college program offered to women in federal prisons in the U.S. The opening of the site was the culmination of years of work with officials at the prison and several visits to speak to staff and incarcerated women there.

For YPEI’s Founding Director Zelda Roland ’08, ’16 Ph.D., the biggest motivator for opening a site at Danbury was the enthusiasm those at Danbury had for a college program. She explains that after an initial visit to speak with incarcerated women, women became excited about the prospect of the program launching there.

“There were women at the prison who had heard that we had been there on the first visit, and who elected to stay at that prison because they were waiting for us to come back and offer a college program there,” Zelda explained, adding that not just the incarcerated women, but also the staff at the prison, were eager for YPEI to establish a presence. “So one of the reasons why we really wanted to be at this prison was because we know that their facility was not just open to it, but eager to bring college programming to the women inside.”

One year later, the college program at Danbury has proven immensely successful. Certainly, challenges remain—for instance, Zelda points out that incarcerated students lack computers and internet access, so they cannot Google their questions like students at Yale are able to, or email faculty outside of class. In the face of these challenges, however, Zelda points to the perseverance of Danbury’s students. “Sometimes [the lack of internet is] actually an asset. We have professors who come in and say that these are some of the best classes, the best students, and the best discussions that they’ve ever had. And what that tells us is that sometimes a lot of the things that we think are assets on campus can actually be distractions from the core learning experience that we hope for.”

Tracy Westmoreland, YPEI’s Danbury Site Director, also emphasized the remarkable abilities of YPEI’s students, especially in art classes offered in its first operating summer through YPEI’s partnership with the Yale School of Art and its Art and Social Justice Initiative. “The anxiety for the art classes was, for some reason, very high,” he said. “But we just had two amazing art teachers—recent graduates from the [Yale] School of Art who received the Yale School of Art Fellowship to teach with YPEI — who really encouraged the students to be creative and be open. And I just got a chance to see the final projects…I was blown away because the quality of the art was tremendous…And we’re actually hoping to do an art show at Danbury and get pictures taken with the students and their work. It was a tremendous experience. And I was just happy to be a part of that.”

Tracy made special note of the staff at Danbury, who he said were critical to the program’s success. “They’ve really gone out of their way to welcome us and make sure the programming is running smoothly.”

Looking forward, YPEI is expecting to award its first University of New Haven associate’s degrees at the Danbury site, as well as bachelor’s degrees at the MacDougall site, where the first AA graduates matriculated in the BA degree this semester. Further, they hope to expand programming at Danbury from the low security women’s prison where they currently operate to the other two prisons in Danbury—a women’s camp and a low security men’s prison. Beyond that, they also hope to expand their College-to-Career Fellowship programs, through which formerly incarcerated alumni of college-in-prison programs can apply to spend one or two years at Dwight Hall to receive professional development and mentorship opportunities through placements at host sites at Yale or UNH. “We’re thinking about the resources that we have on campus at Yale that we’re able to share with people who are coming home from confinement,” Zelda said. “And this fellowship has been a pretty awesome and radical way that we think we can do it.”

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

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