Incarcerated people in Connecticut may soon be able to take Yale College courses for academic credit as part of the Yale Prison Education Initiative (YPEI). The program, which will not be formally established until a new dean is chosen to replace Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway, aims to provide teaching of the same quality and rigor as a Yale classroom, according to Dwight Hall Director Peter Crumlish DIV ’09. Though the project is still in its early stages, Yale professors and graduate students have already expressed interest in teaching at nearby prisons, according to YPEI Director Zelda Roland ’08 GRD ’16. The proposed courses, which cover a range of disciplines, would be taught by Yale graduate students and professors.
“There are a lot of people in prison who are ready for educational opportunity and who are not given access to extremely high quality liberal arts education, and so Yale teaching is something that can do that,” Roland said.
Roland was initially inspired to create the program by her work at Wesleyan’s Center for Prison Education. She said Yale’s program is modeled after that of Wesleyan, which has offered over 60 classes in topics from biology to political theory at the Cheshire Correctional Institution and York Correctional Institution since 2009. Several Yale professors currently teach at prisons through Wesleyan’s program.
At the Wesleyan center, students enroll in two classes and a study hall each semester. The program also offers lectures by visiting professors, noncredit remedial classes, discussion groups and skill-building workshops to supplement the core course load. Still, Roland added that the Wesleyan program only operates in two of Connecticut’s 15 prisons, creating a need within the state for more educational projects for incarcerated people.
A 2013 study by the public policy research group RAND estimated that prisoners who continue their educations behind bars are 43 percent less likely to return to prison upon release, and each dollar invested in prison education programs has the potential to save between four and five dollars of reincarceration costs. In July 2015, former President Barack Obama piloted a program to offer federal funding to inmates who wished to take college courses in prison.
Earlier this month, YPEI hosted a reading event focused on the January 2017 book “College in Prison: Reading in an Age of Mass Incarceration,” an analysis of Bard College’s prison education initiative, which Roland cited as another model for Yale’s program. She added that the 40 attendees, who gathered in Dwight Hall, discussed the challenges of this education model, specifically the challenges of running a similar program near New Haven.
She said the Yale Undergraduate Prison Project, a college activism group for issues relating to incarceration, has helped define her vision for the project. Roland works with student groups to further the impact of Yale programs that address issues of mass incarceration, educational access and criminal justice reform.
Roland stressed the importance of collaboration between groups that interact with prison populations. For example, she noted a pre-existing program at the Yale Law School that brings law Students to Green Haven Prison in New York state for biweekly seminars. She added that the program is premised on the idea that incarcerated men and Yale Law students both have much to learn from each other.
I’m trying to create this network on this campus of people who are already doing stuff like this and bringing it into a discussion that actually energizes the mission of Yale University as this institution of higher learning that seeks best students regardless of background.
She also said she is currently in conversations with the Dean’s Office about launching the program, though she acknowledged that the College is currently undergoing a change in leadership and the project may not get off the ground until after Holloway’s successor is found.
“It’s on hold until the new dean is appointed, but it will likely require faculty vote and discussion if it is something that will be taken on formally,” Crumlish said.
Dwight Hall serves as the institutional home for YPEI, just as it did for Columbus House and the Connecticut Bail Fund, which are all now freestanding New Haven organizations related to incarceration. Crumlish suspected that the program would later be housed under the Dean’s Office.
Roland emphasized that YPEI is still working out the details of the program, specifically how it can best fit with Yale’s mission. Title II of the Workforce Investment Act of 1998 requires that 10 percent of state funding be spent on prison education programs.
© Humane Exposures / Susan Madden Lankford