My name is Love. I am honored to say, I am one of only a few people to earn Yale credits while incarcerated. Needless to say, I am of two worlds — a Yale academic, but also incarcerated. To that end, last year, I along with Zelda Roland ’08 GRD ’16 were the subjects of a Yale Daily News article, “Love on Trial,” by Katherine Hu. In a short epigraph, Katherine asks her reader to consider a question I visit often: “In prison, who deserves higher education?” The piece primarily centers on Zelda’s struggle in bringing the Yale Prison Education Initiative, or YPEI, into a maximum-security prison. On the other hand, Katherine highlighted not only my academic struggle but also the fight for my freedom.
A lot has changed since the time I sat with Kat during office hours to talk about her piece. In particular, a global pandemic has forced the world to pivot to a virtual one — a pivot the carceral world was not ready for. The prison classrooms were once filled with Yale professors, students, contentious but progressive debates and men constantly trying to prove their lives matter. In spite of YPEI’s fight to keep the spirit of its mission alive through a series of snail mail exchanges, it continues to suffer from the effects of this unprecedented isolation. Rather unavoidably, it has been replaced with a tangible sense of emptiness, loss and abandonment. As my classmate Adrian describes it, “It’s like the dead are dying all around us.” The dead he’s referring to are those without hope. We — YPEI students — were the exception to that type of death. This, however, is no longer true. Even worse for me, not only has COVID-19 ended our bids for college degrees but also, in June 2020, the Connecticut Appellate Court rejected my bid for freedom. Needless to say, the inspirational scenes depicted in Kat’s piece have sadly faded to folklore.
As I remember it, an energetic Kat and I sat nervously at a small table in a small room under a small blue and white Yale University flag to discuss an issue larger than the room we found ourselves in. Admittedly, at the time, I wasn’t sure how our two worlds — hers shaped through academics and mine by the hard reality of nearly two decades in prison — would mesh. What I was sure of, however, was similar to Zelda: Though we came from our respective worlds, I believed she saw what can only be described as unexplainable, undeniable, unseen, unheard and largely unknown — the transformative and rehabilitative power of YPEI.
It’s fair to say that it was our shared beliefs that best shined through in “Love on Trial.” In other words, for all involved, YPEI grew to become a sacred pilgrimage in search of change — change of long established academic and societal norms; change of preconceived mindsets; change of hearts behaviors and people; change of the narrative that so many of its students don’t matter. In this way, YPEI, for us, is bigger than just an academic journey. It is beyond anything a degree can or will ever provide. That said, we have accepted Zelda’s challenge to prove our greatness, and she holds us accountable at every turn.
In my view, it’s no longer debatable, as Kat’s epigraph asks, “In prison, who deserves higher education?” At the very least, the better question is: Who deserves what higher education offers — change? While I don’t know if society believes in or is ready for any real reform to what is done to people in prison, if they are, however, there appears to be no rival in criminal justice reform to higher education. Though unpopular to say, I believe the incarcerated have an innate human right to be met at the place of change. To that end, it — the innate human right to be rehabilitated — must be important to who and what this country is. If not this, what is my life worth?
Indeed, as I said above, a lot has changed since the time I sat with Kat under that magical flag that once transformed a small prison classroom into an elite college campus. In that time, I’ve had little to no contact with my classmates. Some I have not seen in over a year and may never see again. I miss them all for different reasons. I find myself lost without the accountability of Adrian and Maurice, the worldly view of David or the optimism of Luis. Moreover, I miss the solidarity of the YPEI team. Needless to say, things — the world — are not the same. This includes us. However, the difference for us is that our humanity has become synonymous with YPEI. Consequently, its departure has also taken that with it.
From such a reality, the question becomes what becomes of YPEI, its students and more importantly, to me, my manumission. Until then I continue to dream of the day I can go to Dwight Hall — to see Zelda and sit in one of those big lecture halls to hear one of my professors speak.
Editor’s note: This article was updated on May 25 to remove information about a fundraiser that was inactive at the time of publication.