The heavy metal door swings open, revealing white brick walls dipped in murals of butterflies and enough inspirational quotes to fill a scrapbook. Malcolm X reminds me that “education is our passport to the future” while a moon wearing a nightcap commands me to “shoot for the stars.” It’s as if I’m standing in the quintessential American elementary school instead of a maximum-security prison.
The students trickle in, a sea of beige uniforms dotted with bright smiles and firm handshakes. For them, this room is a college campus. Gone are the manicured green lawns, larger-than-necessary buildings and laptop computers. Instead, there is a skate park mural over the entryway, made collegiate through the college-level courses taught within, ranging from “Reading and Writing the Modern Essay” to “Beginning Latin.”
I recognize the course listings from my Yale College course catalog because that’s exactly where they’re from; “Reading and Writing the Modern Essay” was one of the first classes I took at Yale. Getting these courses into prison classrooms, however, is the work of the Yale Prison Education Initiative at Dwight Hall, or YPEI. For the past two summers, they have offered for-credit Yale courses to incarcerated individuals at the MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution, the largest correctional facility in New England. Yale’s program is one of a mere handful of higher education programs offered in prisons across the United States.
This evening, I’m helping guide an op-ed writing workshop at MacDougall-Walker. Even though Yale has only allowed YPEI to run for-credit courses during the summer, Zelda Roland ’08 GRD ’16, who founded YPEI as a doctoral student in 2016, cobbles together not-for-credit seminars with faculty lectures and workshops during the school year. As she introduces me to the room, explaining that I’m a Yale Daily News opinion editor, I note how this slight woman with wild black curls and a piercing gaze commands a room. She looks young enough to pass for a fellow undergraduate.
YPEI challenges the idea of who “deserves” a Yale-quality education. While higher education trains students on how to be heard — how to make arguments, how to present them, how to access networks of power — higher education behind bars recognizes that it is also about the ability to hear. When you can’t decipher cryptic academic jargon or legal arguments, it becomes easier for society to siphon away what little power it gave you in the first place.
Over the course of the next week, as handwritten op-eds trickle in, I begin to fully grasp how the education system has neglected YPEI students. They write about afternoons spent selling candy on Yale’s sidewalks while being denied a quality education mere miles away; they discuss how YPEI has helped them grasp the larger forces of injustice working against them. While they can’t escape these walls, maybe their words can.
One student, however, has taken his desire for freedom a step further. Love, an incarcerated student who prefers to go by his enigmatic nickname, wants more than to hear or be heard; he wants to be seen. Since 2007, Love has been challenging his 45-year sentence, arguing that his original trial lawyer mounted an incompetent defense and failed to call crucial witnesses. The tools he’s learned in class have helped him fight his conviction. If his words can leave these walls, then maybe he can too.
But Love isn’t the only one on trial — so too, is YPEI. After allowing Zelda to run for-credit classes for two pilot summers, Yale is putting on the brakes as it figures out its verdict on her labor of love. At stake is the question of whether Yale will formally support YPEI and allow it to continue issuing Yale College credit — a question that strikes at the heart of the program.
It’s Wednesday evening, which means it’s art studio night at MacDougall-Walker. After hauling new watercolors and paintbrushes in from the car amidst chilly September winds, I drag a set of pink chairs to the side of the classroom for “office hours.” Love is my last guest — we begin by chatting about his op-ed ideas before transitioning into a Jimmy Fallon-esque segment (awkwardness and all) where I ask him about his life story. He hunches over slightly in the too-small chair, as if trying to prevent his words from straying too far.
I ask Love to start from the beginning. “The beginning of my time here?” he asks, suggesting that the story is already over. “No,” I hesitate. “Your life before this place, the real beginning.”
Within minutes, we’ve broken free from court hearings and beige jumpsuits and white brick walls. Love rewinds to his childhood in New Haven, where he was born and raised by a mother who struggled with substance abuse. “My childhood was spent chasing my mother’s addiction. Wherever that took her, I was at,” he explains matter-of-factly. “It was a lot of homelessness, a lot of motels.”
While he had gained the nickname “Ruthie’s son” early on, adulthood allowed him to make a new name for himself on the streets. “I had a habit of showing love to people,” he reminisces. “If a lady didn’t get her food stamps, or kids needed sneakers, I’d always try to do right. That’s what they said in the projects. He is Love.”
But love wasn’t always enough. The streets could be unkind, and Love didn’t always make the best choices. When I ask about the tattoos that run the length of his arms, he looks down as if he’s truly seeing them for the first time. Hesitantly, he explains that one of them is the name of the projects he used to live in, before rolling up his right sleeve to reveal a memorial to his daughter Egypt, who passed away from sudden infant death syndrome. Love’s face softens with a misty, faraway look as he describes her chubby, dark-skinned, “‘bout my complexion” baby face.
His face clouds over; the moment passes. The broken home, drugs on the street, even the arrest — “It’s the story you expected to hear,” he says, turning towards me.
Love glances down at his tattoos once more. “They’re a reminder of where I was at one point. This,” he says, cocking his head towards the YPEI classroom, “is a reminder of where I want to be.”
Being around Zelda makes everything feel utterly in control and out of control all at once. One moment, she’s frantically keeping YPEI afloat. The next, she’s chuckling at a video of Phoebe Waller-Bridge hosting Saturday Night Live. “This is just what I needed today,” she sighs contentedly, asking me if I’ve seen “Fleabag” yet.
I glance down at her coffee table, which is smothered in YPEI pamphlets. When I ask her about how she got into all this, I can tell that she’s ready to deliver a well-worn spiel. A friend of hers was working with the Center for Prison Education at Wesleyan University, which needed extra tutors. She visited once, and that was it. When Zelda wasn’t wrapping up her history of art doctorate, she was spending all of her free time in prison.
The students she worked with at Cheshire Correctional Institution encouraged her to start a program at Yale. While prison education programs such as adult basic education and GED courses have become more common, few prisons have been able to offer postsecondary educational programs due to barriers such as funding and the difficulty of offering college credit off-site.
Zelda consulted various programs across the country — Cornell and Princeton, the Prison University Project — before modeling YPEI after the Bard Prison Initiative, which enrolls 300 students in six New York prisons and offers both associate’s and bachelor’s degrees. This made sense — Bard’s program, also known as BPI, is the poster child of prison education. Even those who have never heard of higher education in prison remember headlines about BPI’s debate team defeating the Harvard College Debating Union in 2015. It’s a story that I remember skimming on my smartphone long before I stepped foot in MacDougall-Walker.
Love’s desire to fight his conviction began with what seemed to be a frivolous hope: the practically mythical habeas corpus petition. At cell block tables with older inmates, he learned about the obstacle course they had tried and often failed to navigate, where you challenge the legal basis of your imprisonment through a written petition to the court. When Love began writing his first petition, he spent hours at the prison library. “I didn’t even know how to use the library,” Love tells me, shaking his head. “I learned how to read the books, how to use the [court] transcripts.”
Two years later, Love filed his first habeas corpus petition. He argued that his trial lawyer was deficient enough in her performance to establish constitutional prejudice, jotting out a long legal laundry list: her failure to conduct a proper investigation, call six witnesses that he had recommended and raise a third-party culpability defense questioning whether he was even guilty of the crime at hand.
His first two habeas petitions did not get their day in court. Love pulled both of them before they came before a judge — he was not able to gather all of his new witnesses in time, and knew that he only had one chance to get this right.
It would take 11 years before Love’s third and final petition would finally be heard; he was assigned a defense lawyer named Arthur Ledford to argue his case. I ask Love to describe Ledford, to which he responds by creating two small circles with his hands, placing them over his eyes in a playful manner. “He’s got these Santa Claus glasses.” We both chuckle.
Arthur is one of Love’s closest friends to this day. Above all else, he simply knows that Arthur cares about him. Love breaks out in a grin. “I saw [Arthur] five days ago, and he said to me, ‘When this is all over, can I pick you up? I want to pick you up to get pancakes.’”
Throughout November of 2018, Arthur checked his P.O. box regularly, awaiting the habeas court’s decision. One chilly morning, around 9:30 a.m., it finally arrived. Arthur read down to the last word to ensure he wasn’t mistaken before driving straight from Hamden to MacDougall-Walker, letter in hand, so that he could tell Love in person. The court had granted his habeas petition, vacating 40 years of his 45-year sentence.
“He was absolutely just floored,” Arthur recalls. “You could see he was not the person in the case anymore, not even close. You could just see that he had hope… it was like he was getting an opportunity to actually have a life.”
I ask Arthur how common it is for those who are incarcerated to file habeas petitions. He responds without missing a beat. “To get to the step of writing a habeas corpus? It happens all the time. To winning one? It almost never happens.”
The odds of creating change at a centuries-old institution like Yale, while not quite as low as the odds of winning a habeas corpus, can feel equally impossible. As we discuss details in her office, Zelda shakes her head, running her hands through her hair in frustration. “Everyone says, this is great, let’s do this. We just have 29 hoops for you to jump through.”
In 2016, she found a solution: Yale Summer Session, a for-credit program that Yale offers every summer to Yale students, students from other universities, and rising high school seniors. In more Zelda-relevant terms, it’s a program that offers Yale courses to non-matriculated, non-degree students, but still counts for Yale College credit issued on fancy Yale transcripts.
She took the idea to Dean of Yale Summer Session Jeanne Follansbee and then-Dean of Yale College Jonathan Holloway, pointing out that they could easily operate YPEI through Yale Summer Session’s existing infrastructure. They were so thrilled that Holloway secured permission from then-Provost Ben Polak to waive tuition for YPEI students for a limited initial pilot.
It would take two more summers, however, before YPEI could offer its first for-credit courses. The summer of 2016 was too rushed; the summer of 2017 was out of the question as well, as Holloway transitioned out of his role as Yale College dean.
In the summer of 2018, after two years of fighting and fundraising, everything clicked into place. “Basic Drawing,” “Painting Basics,” “Reading and Writing the Modern Essay,” and “Readings in American Literature” were unveiled as the first slate of for-credit Yale College courses ever to be offered in a prison.
“Reading and Writing the Modern Essay” alone would draw 600 applicants.
When I ask Love about his favorite class, he pauses before throwing me a wry smile. “Foundations of Modern Social Theory,” he says confidently. It isn’t that Love reveres Hobbes or Locke or Weber. Rather, he was able to challenge the reverence that others, such as sociology professor Todd Madigan, hold for them.
Madigan taught the course in the summer of 2019. For an intense six weeks, he and his 12 students met on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. While a typical Yale class spans an hour or two at most, this one took four-and-a-half hours. It was a new experience for Madigan — reorienting to a classroom without technology, forgoing PowerPoint slides and reading essays where word counts were done entirely by hand. But what disoriented him most were the students.
“The intensity with which they read the material and then engaged with it, was something that I’m prepared to never experience again,” he tells me. “This is the sort of thing that fledgling professors dream about, this sort of student that we can only ever hope to encounter.”
The students made it easy to fill up four-and-a-half hours. Part of that is because they were responsible for roughly 130 pages of reading each day, Tuesdays and Thursdays included. But that wasn’t enough. If John Locke mentioned an author, they requested that reading as well. They didn’t just want to understand Locke; they wanted to understand as Locke understood.
From the beginning, Love was skeptical — of Locke, and even of Madigan. “The texts that we were reading were the foundations of slavery,” he explains. “They were talking about how those people are different.” When they read Max Weber’s “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism,” Love balked at Weber’s suggestion that rationality in the West could be hereditary.
Love outlined the racial implications of Weber’s argument to Madigan. “I am the product of the stuff that you’re studying,” Love explained. By the end of the summer, both of them had learned from one another — Madigan told Love that he would never teach his social theory course the same way again.
Last September, Madigan became an associate professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro; one of his fall semester classes covered the civil rights movement. But now, Madigan does more than dwell on the classic civil rights movement of high school textbook lore. Instead, he dives past the surface, into the nuances of black nationalism and the Black Panthers. It’s a new literacy — the kind Love taught him.
Post-Madigan, Love continues to learn through courses like “Writing Revolution” and books like “The Black Jacobins.” Winning his habeas petition, after all, was not enough. The state is challenging the decision of the habeas court, arguing that the judge was wrong in ordering a new trial for Love’s original case and vacating 40 years of his 45-year sentence. Even if his appellate lawyer, Daniel Krisch, succeeds in arguing that the judge should’ve ordered a new trial, there will need to be, well, a new trial. Until then, Love is being held in MacDougall-Walker on $450,000 bond and attempting to raise money via GoFundMe. His inability to pay is the only reason he isn’t free at the moment; it’s an amount that he can only afford to pay with his time.
As I sit in on a three-hour session of “Writing Revolution,” I glance over at Love sitting silently in the back of class, hunched over in his seat. It would make sense that he’s not focused on “The Black Jacobins”; his mind is probably preoccupied with the trial phase of his habeas petition. Classes like these helped him cut through dense theoretical arguments and understand the language of those who are debating over the terms of his life — but it feels like every small step towards redemption for Love is met by yet another barrier. This time, it’s $450,000. In the world beyond MacDougall, would a Yale transcript be enough for an employer to look past his time in prison?
Even if it isn’t, it feels like his best chance at being seen in all of his complexity. “I could not critically read legal writing and understand arguments on both sides until YPEI,” he tells me, referencing his habeas petition. I wonder, silently, if that will be enough.
Zelda stands in front of a room that feels almost like a jury, filled with people from across the University. It’s the day of the “College Behind Bars” preview, which she has been bidding to hold at Yale for months. Lynn Novick ’83, a Yale alumna and director, is here to unveil a sneak peek of her new PBS documentary on the Bard Prison Initiative.
It’s certainly good timing for such an event. Just a month prior in September, Yale’s administration formed a faculty committee to deliberate on YPEI’s future. “I’ve been waiting for this faculty committee for four years,” Zelda says.
The committee’s charge is to explore models of prison education that might work at Yale for credit, Deputy Dean and Dean of Strategic Initiatives Pamela Schirmeister tells me. While the Yale College Dean’s Office is supportive of prison education, she tells me, it is hesitant about giving Yale College credit to YPEI sans tuition, as opposed to other programs. The University, she explains, believes that there needs to be a principle in place around who can and should receive free Yale College credit. Regardless of what happens, Schirmeister tells me, “This is the end of the pilot … we are not going to do [it] again.”
The five-person committee has been meeting since the fall of 2019. The hope is that by the end of the spring semester, they will deliver a verdict in the form of a report; a faculty member vote will take place if needed. It is entirely likely, Dean Schirmeister explains, that YPEI will be asked to partner with a community college to issue cheaper-than-Yale college credit through them. But nothing is certain yet. Until then, Zelda is pulling out all the stops, this event included.
As the event draws to a close, Zelda seizes the microphone with both hands. “I just want to say a quick thing. If you were moved by anything you saw today … this is actually our semester to fight.” Her voice is laced with urgency. “It’s important, the time has come, Yale should be in this. It should be in this right now, and it should’ve been in this 20 years ago when BPI started, but today is just as good.”
The optimism of the audience is electric; it feels like the end of a successful stand-up comedy show on a Saturday night. “That’s it. I’ll be here. Thank you.” Zelda beams, channeling her inner Phoebe-Waller Bridge. This time, she has pulled it off.
“She doesn’t know this, but I tell her all the time,” Love says, gesturing towards Zelda. “What we learn here, we teach other inmates.” He details how books change hands, cycling throughout the prison to those who YPEI cannot yet accommodate. Here, education is an antidote to idle days and depression, transforming a place where “this is jail, not Yale” used to be a common retort from prison guards. Now, rather, it is Yale in jail.
The question is whether it will remain there. “They finally read me the charge, in full, last week,” Zelda tells me over the phone in early February, updating me on the committee’s progress. This is usually the time of year that she begins fundraising and planning out summer courses, given that YPEI runs entirely on private grants and donations. But now, everything is in a bit of standstill, effectively putting the program on hold.
“It has never been our hope that this program is limited to a summer program,” Zelda reminds me. If things go well, YPEI could offer for-credit courses year-round, following in the footsteps of programs like Bard and eventually offering associate’s and bachelor’s degrees. If things go south, then Zelda’s first concern is the students. “They’re my first concern,” she explains. “The first thing for me to think about is … how to ensure that they’re able to continue to take college classes through an arrangement with another institution or a partnership.”
For a moment, I think back to that cold night in September when I first met Love. As class came to a close, I turned to Love and asked him what would be the first thing he’d do if everything worked out, if he could walk free from MacDougall-Walker. “Aside from the pancakes with Arthur,” I caveated. He laughed, wagging his finger at me.
“I would want to go see Zelda at Dwight Hall,” Love declared proudly. “I want to go sit in one of those classes, in one of those big lecture halls. I want to be a student at Yale, to know what that feels like.”