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Dear YPEI friends and family,
Thank you to many of you who have reached out to express your concern for our students in prison and your support for our program in this deeply challenging time.
On March 12, in light of the spread of COVID-19 and the particular vulnerability of prisons to the global pandemic, the Connecticut Department of Corrections suspended all in-person contact with outside visitors and programming — including YPEI.
The night before this shutdown, as Yale began to plan its transition to online learning, I visited MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution to gather our current students. Together, we discussed ways we might prepare for a potential rupture in our semester. We talked about ways of maintaining a continuity of learning despite real distance. We discussed ways we might still be able to bring our community together despite many levels of isolation — isolation from the world, isolation from YPEI and community, and even our students’ isolation from each other, within the prison space.
We are learning, and we are improvising. Our counterparts in the Department of Corrections have been extraordinarily helpful in facilitating ongoing correspondence with our students. I am in regular contact with other prison education programs both in our Consortium and all across the country, and together we are navigating how to continue the mission of college-in-prison without sacrificing the humanity and proximity which are so central to the success of a program like ours.
Nevertheless, it is painful to understand the deepened isolation of our students at this moment. One student wrote to us this week: “Now that I can’t escape to my sanctuary (YPEI), I feel out of sorts and lost amongst the madness. I am learning that the humanity of YPEI has become an integral part of me…I’ve done north of twenty days in solitary confinement without batting an eye. But take away YPEI and I’m pulling my hair out (figuratively speaking, of course).”
Tonight marks the beginning of Passover, the Jewish holiday that celebrates the biblical Exodus of the Hebrew slaves from Egypt. Those who observe consider the value of freedom, and are asked, as well, to remember those people who are still not free, today. With so many suffering in our world right now —so many in pain, and so many lost — we also remember those in prison. Last year, with some help from our partners at the Bard Prison Initiative, we put together a YPEI Passover Haggadah Supplement (accessible here). We proposed considering four questions that are just as resonant this year:
“What does freedom mean to you?:
“Who is freedom for?”
“What is your obligation to those without freedom?”
“What is the relationship of freedom and education?”
Today, I am also reflecting on a moving message about the diaspora of this semester from Yale’s Chair of Ethnicity Race & Migration, Professor Alicia Schmidt Camacho. With Professor Schmidt Camacho's blessing, I shared her message with YPEI students last week, and I will share an excerpt with you here:
“Disaster requires acts of imagination. The pandemic lays bare the cruelty of living in such dismal inequality… This enforced social separation may yet awaken a demand to be liberated from these other, imposed and unnatural forms of social separation: of class, of race, of legal status, of gender expression and sexuality, of religion and of place.”
As you mark your own transition to spring, let us all hope together for coming liberations in all forms.
From a distance, warmly,
PS: If you have a message of solidarity that you wish to share with our students, please feel free to send it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.