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.
“This is jail, not Yale,” a correctional officer remarked the first time he observed me studying in the prison dayroom. His statement of the obvious conveyed a general sentiment that this place — MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution — is a place of retribution, rather than rehabilitation. Over my many years in prison, I’ve heard this mantra echoed countless times. Choosing to agree with it, however, is a choice.
We all make countless decisions each and every day. While many seem trivial, others can greatly impact the course of our lives. The most pertinent decision, one regarding my education, was made while standing in front of a judge. As the prosecutor listed a litany of facts, crafting a narrative that reduced my entire life to my worst moment, he cited my abysmal academic record. While I knew that I had not applied myself in high school, I was shocked to hear that I had graduated at the very bottom of my class. In that very moment, I realized the stark connection between education and all other facets of life. I was faced with a choice of continuing upon that same trajectory — confirming this narrative — or changing it and redefining my life. I fully committed to change and embraced education as a crucial element of the person that I wanted to become. I continued on this path until reaching my apex this summer through the Yale Prison Education Initiative.
In 2018, YPEI began offering Yale Summer Session Courses at MacDougall-Walker. I was elated at the opportunity to not only assess my progress, but also to potentially take college classes. Moreover, this was not just any college; it was Yale. I applied and was interviewed, but I failed to get in to the program. This initial rejection sparked momentary doubt, which only served to fuel my drive. I spent the next year voraciously reading everything that I could get my hands on and taking college prep classes from a non-profit organization. When I applied again in the summer of 2019, I was accepted. I am proud to say that at almost 50 years of age and having been out of school for almost 30 years, I received As on my first two credited classes from Yale. But my personal accomplishment pales in comparison to the collective shift it signifies.
Until recently, the educational opportunities provided within Connecticut’s penal system were minimal and offered limited applicability. The grim reality was that most of us were confronted with a choice — of a menial job, post-incarceration or recidivism. As one of many autodidacts at MacDougall-Walker, I was not alone in my struggle to envision a future that held no such constraints.
But when Dr. Zelda Roland came to MacDougall-Walker to introduce YPEI, offering us the opportunity to reach our fullest potentials, she stated matter-of-factly, “when you are in this class, it is Yale.” Whether she knew it, her words signaled a dramatic change. The arid landscape that had previously drained life from even the mere idea of any academic yield was now flourishing with saplings of knowledge reaching ever upward: the glass ceiling was raised to towering heights. YPEI brought confirmation and encouragement to those who had vision; it brought hope to those who had not previously considered hope plausible.
YPEI has changed the collective narrative moving forward, facilitating growth not only for those who have begun to study independently, but for all those within the scope of the system. YPEI has truly made this Yale rather than jail, and the impact of that fact is boundless. But the question remains: will Yale continue to captain the rudder? Or will we be let heedlessly adrift?
PETE 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.