Yale prison education program receives $1.5 million Mellon grant

Since 2018, the Yale Prison Education Initiative at Dwight Hall (YPEI) has offered for-credit Yale courses to incarcerated individuals at Connecticut’s MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution. Drawing from existing Yale classes, and with the same academic standards and rigor of on-campus classes, the initiative offers a broad liberal arts curriculum, with courses ranging from “Visual Thinking” to “Introduction to Ethics” to “Readings in American Literature.”

Now YPEI, in partnership with the University of New Haven (UNH), will expand its educational offerings, giving its students the opportunity to earn college degrees for the first time.

The new partnership, which has received a three-year, $1.5 million grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, will allow incarcerated students in Connecticut to earn a two-year associate’s degree from UNH by taking courses in prison classrooms taught by both Yale and UNH faculty members and graduate students.

Prison education speaks to Yale’s mission of seeking exceptionally promising students and cultivating citizens and leaders,” said Zelda Roland ’08, ’16 Ph.D., founding director of YPEI and director of the new Yale-UNH partnership.  “If we can begin to imagine a future beyond mass incarceration, empowering and educating the leaders of that future who have been directly impacted is a big part of the university’s role.”

All students who have earned credits for Yale courses since the program began will have those credits transferred toward an associate’s degree in general studies at UNH. A bachelor’s degree allowing students some flexibility in selecting majors is anticipated to launch in 2022.

The program will also support fellowships for alumni of YPEI or other college-in-prison programs so they can partake in postgraduate learning and work experiences on both university campuses.

YPEI, a program of Dwight Hall at Yale, is a member of the Bard Prison Initiative’s Consortium for Liberal Arts in Prison and a national leader in the field of higher education in prison. In addition to offering access to liberal arts courses through the university’s Yale College Summer Session, it has also offered other non-credit courses, workshops, guest lectures by Yale faculty and others, and other special programming at MacDougall-Walker, a high-maximum security facility for adult males located in Suffield, Connecticut.

The Mellon Foundation grant will also support the expansion of YPEI’s network of academic resources, tutors, advisors, and other support systems to ensure student success; help fund the hiring of additional YPEI staff members; and allow for technology enhancements in prison classrooms, including the installation of computer “labs” and virtual classrooms for remote learning.

It’s going to allow us to expand our course offerings to offer credit-bearing courses year-round for the first time; increase the number of enrolled incarcerated students; and expand our in-prison advising systems along with extracurricular and college life programming,” Roland said.

Being in college isn’t just enrolling in a course; it’s having access to library services, office hours, and informal study spaces; having peer tutors or being able to reach out to support structures when you need assistance; or receiving support for a disability. Every time we expand our offerings, there has to be a proportional expansion of these advisory systems and college life programming.”

To date, 34 students have enrolled in Yale Summer Session courses through YPEI, and Roland hopes that by the end of the grant period another 50 students from MacDougall-Walker, as well as a second facility, will be enrolled in college coursework.

Michael Rossi, interim dean of the College of Arts & Sciences at the University of New Haven, will serve as the principal investigator for the Mellon grant, and Roland will be co-principal investigator.

My experience tells me that some of the most exceptionally promising students are currently incarcerated in our state’s prisons,” Roland said. “I think it is important for us to acknowledge and recognize the promise of these students.”

A mission and a ‘new frontier’

During the past year, when prison visits were prohibited because of the COVID pandemic, incarcerated students enrolled in not-for-credit YPEI correspondence courses and workshops.

Roderick Ferguson began teaching at MacDougall-Walker shortly after joining the Yale faculty in 2019. Since then, Ferguson, professor and chair of Women’s, Gender, & Sexuality Studies in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), has co-taught “Introduction to Ethnic Studies,” led his own courses on “Black Feminist Theory” and “Critical University Studies,” and taught a correspondence course on “Writings Within Black Progressive Traditions.”

My teaching through YPEI has been some of the best teaching experiences I’ve had,” said Ferguson, who serves as chair of the YPEI Faculty Oversight Committee. “I have been amazed by the incarcerated students’ level of engagement and openness to whatever I have to offer. I’ve been enriched and honored by the conversations we’ve had in the classroom, and I’m now committed to always teaching in the program, no matter how busy I am.”

For Elizabeth Hinton, who joined the Faculty of Arts and Sciences in the summer of 2020, YPEI is one of the reasons she chose to teach at Yale.

For me, especially as a scholar of the history of policing, criminalization, and mass incarceration, the opportunity to be able to teach at an institution that supports expanding opportunities for people in prison is deeply appealing,” said Hinton, an associate professor of history and African American studies, who also has an appointment at the Yale Law School.

I am really excited about the innovative fellowship program that Zelda has established, by which people who have earned degrees in prison can come to Yale or to the University of New Haven to do work in a specific field, such as working with a curator at an art gallery or interning with a professor at the Law School,” added Hinton, who also serves on the YPEI Faculty Oversight Committee. “The fellowship program is a new frontier in prison education, helping students who have thrived in Yale’s or other prison education programs while serving time to continue their studies and develop skills they can own once they are released.”

A network of support

Roland credits YPEI’s success to the many campus partnerships and collaborations that have evolved since the start of the program and will continue to grow with the support of the Mellon grant.

In a new partnership with the University Library, for example, undergraduate and graduate students receive fellowships to support library access for incarcerated students, including conducting library research on their behalf. The Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning funds a year-round “academic strategies peer mentor” to students in prison. Fellowships funded by Dwight Hall, the President’s Office, the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, the Center for the Study of Race, Indigeneity, and Transnational Migration (RITM), the Divinity School, and the School of Art, among other offices and programs, also support undergraduate and graduate students in their work for YPEI.

Typically, about 50 undergraduate and graduate students assist Roland each year with running the initiative and supporting incarcerated students in various ways.

Now, through a new agreement with FAS Dean Tamar Gendler, a limited number of Yale faculty members will be able teach in YPEI via the Teaching Relief for Learning program, which provides a select number of FAS faculty members a semester-long release from traditional teaching to engage in some intellectual exploration of their own.

Teaching Relief for Learning is one of the signature components of our Scholars and Leaders; Scholars as Learners (SAL2) program, which supports FAS faculty in their continuing growth as scholars, leaders and citizens,” Gendler said. “Traditionally, faculty have used the Teaching Relief program to expand their intellectual horizons by enrolling in courses outside of their home discipline. But it is deeply compatible with the spirit of this program for faculty to spend their relieved semester engaged with the work of the YPEI, which opens new vistas of engagement and insight for its students and its faculty.”

With the support from the Mellon Foundation and YPEI’s innovative partnership with the University of New Haven, incarcerated students in Connecticut will interact with Yale’s engaging faculty like its undergraduates do, according to Yale College Dean Marvin Chun.

Yale faculty are dedicated to teaching and learning. I expect that incarcerated students will feel inspired by our instructors, and in turn, our teachers will learn from them in ways that enhance their teaching of Yale students,” said Chun. “YPEI also provides invaluable opportunities for undergraduate students to get involved in prison education.”

The Mellon Foundation grant comes at a most opportune time for YPEI, as at the end of 2020 Congress lifted a 26-year ban on access to federal Pell grants for incarcerated students, Roland noted. The reinstatement of the need-based financial aid for postsecondary education will make college study possible for many incarcerated individuals.

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the largest benefactor of the arts and humanities in the United States, supports initiatives that strengthen those fields as well as higher education and cultural heritage.

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