Editor’s Note: Today’s columns were written by three incarcerated students from the Yale Prison Education Initiative at Dwight Hall (YPEI), which has brought credited Yale courses to students in Connecticut prisons since 2018. Last year’s Opinion Editors, Katherine Hu ’21 and Adrian Rivera ’20, worked with students at the MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution in Suffield, Connecticut, through the process of writing and editing these pieces. In accordance with conversations with the Connecticut Department of Corrections, we have agreed to publish the full name of only one of these three individuals.
Since May of last year, I have been a student of the Yale Prison Education Initiative (YPEI), when the program first began offering classes to students incarcerated at MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution through Yale Summer Session. Throughout my 17 years of incarceration, I have been afforded few meaningful educational opportunities — none of which offered credit for my work. I had become accustomed to the status quo of independent study and various volunteer workshops, all of which provided me with knowledge and experience, but not much else to show for it. That is, until I met Dr. Zelda Roland, founder and director of YPEI.
At first, I was a bit skeptical (as my experiences have taught me to be) about what she offered. Why would Yale University be willing to offer me college credit, and a Yale transcript? Would the courses truly uphold the Yale standard? I’d already taken enough shortcuts in my life; if the program’s pedagogy was built on patronizing us intellectually, I wanted nothing to do with it. After my interview (a requirement for admission into the program), I was cautiously optimistic.
Over the past year, I have been stretched to intellectual lengths I had not previously known. Through YPEI and its partnership with Yale Summer Session, I have enrolled in five Yale courses: “Reading and Writing the Modern Essay” (ENGL S120), “Readings in American Literature” (ENGL S127), “Introduction to Latin Grammar” (Latin S110), “Visual Thinking” (Art S111) and “Foundations of Modern Social Theory” (SOCY S151). It may surprise you that prison academia is a highly competitive environment. The instructors who have worked with us have seen that we can excel and achieve equal if not greater success in these courses than some of their students on campus. The men in my cohort have also helped in this effort, challenging me to become a more nuanced and critical thinker — I pray that I have done the same for them. The professors YPEI has brought into the prison have exposed us to close reading techniques that have sharpened our analytical skills and made us better, more informed students. In turn, they’ve also made us more equipped and active fathers, as well as the prepared leaders our communities need.
Our educational journey, however, has not been without its challenges. When encountering sensitive subjects such as race, democracy and American exceptionalism, our experiences have given us a different worldview than that of the average Yale student. This has, at times, been a point of contention. As students, we challenge the racist views espoused by many works in the “classical” literary canon, as well as the philosophies that have shaped the minds of our leaders for centuries. We are not easily impressed by the names of laureates and “all-time greats;” I believe we provide to the academy an honest view of these antiquated ideals.
Yale University is a place of prestige. But with that prestige comes a sense of exclusivity and elitism. YPEI has served to dispel that notion by offering society’s forgotten citizens two things that many of us have never had: opportunity and exposure. This has allowed us to flourish in ways we previously thought were impossible. Our encounters and experiences with Yale faculty, undergraduates and graduate students have also helped us better understand and navigate the rigors of the University standard. In the process, we have become more efficient readers and more effective writers.
We live in a time when social justice issues are at the forefront of our nation’s collective conscience. Zelda, through her work with YPEI, is positioning Yale as a leader in providing quality education to the incarcerated. It would be unjust and myopic for her tireless efforts to go unsupported. As an established, highly accomplished educational institution, Yale has a reputation for discovering and molding great minds. Some of the most brilliantly creative and analytical thinkers I have ever encountered are the men here in YPEI. Yes, we have made some costly mistakes in our lives. But should that relegate our minds to dormant complacency? I believe not. Brilliance has no boundaries — why not continue venturing where few others would go?
The chosen few who have been blessed with the YPEI experience have been awakened to the untapped potential that lies dormant within us all. Yale, in that respect, has given us the gift of new life. We are no longer subject to the limitations prison culture submerges its occupants under because now, we have the critical thinking skills necessary to surpass boundaries that have been set in stone for ages. It is time for Yale to step outside the box of its own traditions to discover what more can be done for the underserved. Our University motto is “Lux et Veritas” — Light and Truth. Light has a duty to shine where it is darkest; truth must govern our principles and policies. YPEI has built a solid foundation for that important work.
Will you add to it?
LUIS MATTEI JR. is an incarcerated student at the MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution in Suffield, Connecticut, and a participant in the Yale Prison Education Initiative at Dwight Hall.
An earlier version of this piece referred to the “McDougall-Walker Correctional Institution.” It is MacDougall, not McDougall.