Library provides essential support to incarcerated students earning college degrees
In June, the Yale Prison Education Initiative (YPEI) held its first commencement ceremony, which took place at the MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution, a state correctional facility in Suffield, Connecticut. MacDougall-Walker is one of two sites where the YPEI program operates; the other site is the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury.
The YPEI—Yale’s joint program with the University of New Haven (UNH)—was founded in 2016 as a program of Dwight Hall, Yale’s Center for Public Service and Social Justice, by Zelda Roland ’08, ’16 PhD. This year, the program awarded the first college degrees. “This year was a significant milestone,” said Emily Horning, the library’s director of Undergraduate Teaching and Outreach, who is also director of library support for the YPEI.
This year, Horning participated for the first time in the program’s accreditation review. In May, representatives from the New England Commission on Higher Education (NECHE) met with administrators to evaluate UNH’s operations at both prisons and review its accreditation status.
YPEI is a participant in the Department of Education’s Second Chance Pell Experimental Sites Initiative, which enables people in state and federal prisons to receive Federal Pell Grants. To ensure excellence in post-secondary education, NECHE evaluates and reviews the accreditation of more than 200 institutions, including Yale University. As part of its work, NECHE also evaluates and reviews Second Chance Pell Experimental Sites, like YPEI, which joined the initiative in spring of 2022.
During this summer’s commencement ceremony—attended by UNH interim president Sheahon Zenger, Governor Ned Lamont, Yale Chaplain Sharon Kugler, and other officials—six incarcerated students and one recently released student in the YPEI/UNH program received their associate’s degrees in general studies. “Students at the Danbury facility are now halfway through the associate’s program,” Horning said.
Faculty members from both Yale and UNH teach courses in person at both prison locations. Library staff also offer on-site courses and programming. Kathy Bohlman, architecture records archivist at the Robert B. Haas Family Arts Library, taught a special workshop in color theory at the Danbury facility in August. This spring, Michael Printy, librarian for Western European Humanities, taught sessions on working with primary sources and accessing the archives in Yale’s libraries. This fall, he will teach a semester-long seminar at MacDougall. Horning teaches research skills in on-site workshops at both facilities.
The Research Request Network
Horning also oversees the library’s Research Request Network (RRN), which provides essential support for the program. Incarcerated students do not have access to the Internet, but through the RRN, they can request the library materials they need for their coursework.
Soon after she arrived at Yale in 2020, Barbara Rockenbach, Stephen Gates ’68 University Librarian, lent full support to the library’s active participation in YPEI—particularly through the RRN. “Libraries are essential to education and to intellectual exploration,” Rockenbach said. “Through the Research Request Network, the rich resources of the Yale Library can have a significant impact well beyond the walls of Yale University.”
Undergraduate and graduate students from Yale and UNH work as volunteers to support the students in the program. YPEI students send their research questions to the library, and the student volunteers respond to each query individually, in writing, within 72 hours. With the required travel time to and from the prison, the materials reach the requestor within five days.
“We have trained a great group of very committed volunteers,” Horning said. “The work with the Research Request Network helps them further develop their own research skills while also providing them with the opportunity to give back.”
Students can volunteer to join the Research Request Network to help YPEI students succeed in their coursework.
YPEI has been a member of Bard Prison Initiative’s national Consortium for the Liberal Arts in Prisons since 2017. Similar programs in 15 colleges and universities across 10 states—including Wesleyan University in Middletown, whose program offered founder Roland a model for Yale’s program—offer people in and returning home from prison for-credit liberal arts courses and the opportunity to pursue higher education.
Image: Student receiving diploma at first YPEI commencement ceremony, June 9, 2023. Photo by Karen Pearson