‘Unconventional College Students’: How 12 Incarcerated Maximum-Security Individuals in CT. Earned College Degrees

By Natasha Sokoloff
The Middletown Press, Conn.

SUFFIELD, Conn. — For many college students and families, graduation season means hours spent in a stadium, amphitheater, or athletic fields. But in a unique ceremony Friday, bachelor’s degrees were handed out in the the largest prison in New England.

In the first-ever bachelor’s degree ceremony held in a Connecticut prison — ceremonies were held in 2023, bestowing associate degrees — 12 people who are incarcerated were awarded degrees at the maximum-security MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institute for adult men.

Still, the graduates, their loved ones, faculty, and staff celebrated at the facility in a ceremony, made possible by a prison education program through a partnership between Yale University and the University of New Haven.

“It was a huge success. It was so beautiful,” said Zelda Roland, the founder of the Yale Prison Education Initiative and the Prison Education Program Director at the University of New Haven.

Officials would not identify each of the degree recipients, but said their ages range from 32 to 54 and they have a range of three to 69 years left to serve on their sentences.

The Yale Prison Education Initiative at Dwight Hall (YPEI) has offered Yale credit-bearing classes — equivalent to on-campus courses in rigor, course load and expectations, officials insist — at MacDougall-Walker as well as at the Manson Youth Institution in Cheshire since 2018.

“The core of our program is trying to extend access to the same type of education that we provide on campus to students in prison with a thought that they have the same potential to succeed in this range of classes in the liberal arts,” Roland said. “And that there are, among our students, future poets, sociologists, scientists, and not limiting what kind of educational opportunity people can access, and really investing in incarcerated students as future leaders and citizens.”

The metaphorical halls of academia are not usually lined with prison cells. They have professors who teach eager minds, unconcerned with the potentially violent history of their pupils.

But backers of the YPEI certainly believe the benefits outweigh any potential dangers.

In 2021, a three-year, $1.5 million grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation expanded the program to include a partnership with the University of New Haven. It allowed incarcerated students to earn an associate degree in general studies by taking courses in prison classrooms taught by both Yale and UNH faculty members and graduate students. The Yale credits students had previously earned were transferred toward the degree, which is awarded by UNH.

Through it, incarcerated students have the opportunity to take classes in an expansive range of disciplines, including sociology, philosophy, chemistry, ethnicity, race and migration, criminal justice, mathematics, English, communications, and more, Roland said.

Yale professor Sarah Mahurin has taught literature in the YPEI since its beginning, and while leading a class at MacDougall-Walker doesn’t exactly match what one would look like in the Ivy League school, she says she’s seen that all of the students have something in common: the eagerness and desire to learn.

“In some ways, you know, teaching smart and curious and motivated students has more similarities than differences. Whether you’re teaching incarcerated students or teaching students on a traditional campus,” she said, “they’re really curious and excited about ideas. And excited to talk to each other about their ideas.”

In fact, one of the biggest differences between teaching at a typical college campus and a correctional facility, Mahurin said, has less to do with whom and how she teaches, but is ingrained within the institutional structures.

“On a traditional campus, if a student doesn’t understand something in the readings or wants more clarification on an assignment, they have the ability to hop by the professor’s office hours for a quick conversation,” she said. “And that’s not something that’s accessible, of course, to incarcerated students, which means that their dedication, and just sort of their sheer force of will, especially during high octane or difficult times in the semester, has to really be ratcheted up.”

And ultimately, over the years, Mahurin has gotten confirmation of what she and the rest of the program team always thought to be true.

“We always felt that there were extraordinary minds inside of Connecticut’s prisons, and teaching them over the years, teaching these students over the years has confirmed that that’s exactly the case,” Mahurin said. “And we’re just really happy that our program can serve those minds.”

Friday’s cohort of graduates included 10 recipients of associate degrees in general studies and two recipients of bachelor’s degrees in interdisciplinary studies.

“It’s actually really great because it allows students in our program the flexibility to not be wedged into one discipline, but to really be able to explore a few different disciplines,” she said.

All 10 associate degree recipients graduated with high honors, and two tied for valedictorian with 4.0 GPAs. One of the bachelor’s degree recipients is graduating cum laude and another magna cum laude.

All of the students, entirely from the maximum-security prison, have been able to earn a degree from the University of New Haven. The ceremony was also particularly special because the two who received bachelor’s degrees were members of the YPEI’s very first, small cohort, when the program was just getting off the ground, Mahurin said.

“It’s really powerful to see students from those first days getting the first BAs in the state. They’re both like really remarkable readers and thinkers and writers and it’s just really gratifying to see that acknowledged in the formal way that it deserves to be acknowledged,” she said. “You know, like I already knew that they were great readers and writers and thinkers, because I’ve taught them. But there is something special about an official documentation of that.”

Mahurin said she believes being a part of YPEI has made her a better teacher, for both her on-campus Yale students and incarcerated ones. “I think the more perspectives and more voices and more communities any instructor encounters, the better that instructor gets at their work.”

And although they are taking undergraduate courses, the incarcerated students’ ages range from in their 20s to their 60s, Roland said. “They’re unconventional college students,” she said.

In the years since she created the program, Roland said she’s witnessed the incredible potential of students in prison, and their resilience.

“I’ve just learned about how important it is to invest in people,” she said. “And to believe in people.”

The amount of applicants every year illustrate the desire for liberal arts college programming in these institutions, Roland said. YPEI belongs to the Bard Prison Initiative’s national Consortium for the Liberal Arts in Prison, which works with colleges and universities launch and sustain college-in-prison programs across the country.

Usually a “couple hundred” people express interest in applying — MacDougall-Walker was built to accommodate 2,218 inmates but it’s typical population is between 1,500 and 1,600 according to annual audits submitted to the state — but it’s a competitive admissions process consisting of a written application, interview, and mock seminar, with only a 12-person cohort admitted, Roland said. “And that’s because we are constrained, you know, by funding and we are constrained by classroom space in the facilities.”

The program raises the funds to cover the cost of each student, mostly through private grants, individual donations, and with the help of some Pell Grants, Roland said.

It also provides students with academic resources like study halls, writing tutors, peer editors, discussion facilitators, and research partners, she said.

In addition to providing a pathway to a degree, the program extends beyond the classroom to assist incarcerated students in reentry, through partnerships with community organizations such as Project Fresh Start, Emerge CT, and The New Haven Reentry Roundtable. This provides offerings like resumé-building and job search assistance, and connects students with continuing educational opportunities.