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Yale Alumni write in about YPEI

In the November/December issue of the Yale Alumni Magazine, readers wrote in moving reflections on Dylan Walsh's cover story about the Yale Prison Education Initiative. Read all of the letters at the Yale Alumni Magazine here.

Dylan Walsh’s story about the Yale Prison Education Initiative (“Freedom of Mind,” September/October) is a moving reminder of the transformative power of education for even the most marginalized members of society. As a long-time volunteer adult-literacy tutor, I’ve seen men and women without hope or prospects find new confidence, happiness, and purpose when engaged in a learning environment that doesn’t judge or condescend. Here’s hoping that the article motivates your readers, no matter what their profession, to consider participating as volunteer educators—tutors, teachers, counselors, mentors—in local at-risk communities. The need is vast; the payoff benefits us all.

William Scheer ’83MPPM

Fuquay-Varina, NC

Thank you for the enlightening piece on the Yale Prison Education Initiative. One aspect of the initiative, not fully explained in the article, is puzzling. If participants take Yale courses, with Yale professors, and “strict adherence to on-campus standards” per the article, why are the degrees granted by the University of New Haven? What is the role of UNH other than signing diplomas? Are there any UNH courses, taught by UNH professors? Is there a possibility of a Yale degree?

Noreen Shugrue ’96MBA

Manchester, CT

Zelda Roland ’08, ’16PhD, director of the Yale Prison Education Initiative, responds: “In addition to Yale courses with Yale professors, the program also offers University of New Haven courses with UNH professors, and a large majority of courses are in fact accredited by UNH. University of New Haven also administers the federal financial aid (Pell Grants) for students and brings a wealth of resources to our students, who are full-time matriculated degree-seeking students there. We’re proud that the program operates as a true partnership between YPEI and UNH, bringing together the best of teaching and learning from both campuses, and enabling us to do far more together than we would have been able to do separately. We’re also able to work with UNH Development to fundraise for the program, which is supported largely through private grants and donations made to either Dwight Hall or UNH. As to degrees—we do aspire to one day be able to offer a Yale degree, and I still believe it is a real possibility!”

I am a retired public health epidemiologist. One of our mantras was “You’re not doing public health unless you are working in prisons.” Some of our most rewarding work was offering clinical and educational services in prisons. I met many people behind bars. There were some “bad actors” who truly earned their sentences. There were many who, but for the grace of G-d, could have been me or others like me. I was impressed and dismayed by what I thought was the amount of amazing human potential languishing behind bars.

A prisoner’s time behind bars is an extraordinary opportunity to help change the trajectory of their lives. I truly believe that education, be it liberal arts and/or trade training and certification, while trying to maintain connections with family and neighborhood support systems, opens other pathways/opportunities to better lives for them and the community on the outside. I am very proud of Yale’s participation and model in this.

Paul Etkind ’76MPH, ’98DrPH

Grantham, NH

I read with great pleasure and much empathy your recent article about the Yale Prison Education Initiative. About thirty years ago, I began teaching a university-level course in nineteenth-century American history at North Carolina’s maximum-security Central Prison in Raleigh. The prison is within walking distance of both my home (at the time) and my office at North Carolina State University.

Some of the inmates had asked for a Black history course—a subject not offered by their institution’s cooperative agreement with other area colleges. Our very qualified instructor in African American history at the time, Linda McMurry, was not allowed to teach in the all-male Central Prison because of her gender—a policy that has since been changed. I told the prison that I could teach a course centering on the sectional conflict, the Civil War, and Reconstruction, but that I was not qualified to teach a dedicated African American course.

They took me anyway, and for two years I met regularly with a half-dozen inmates—all African Americans—who pushed me to explain in depth the material we were reading. Before long, we were discussing virtually all aspects of American life, and we were becoming friends. This was a non-credit course—my students got no credit, and I got no pay.No pay, that is, in dollars—but my rewards from this experience were enormous.

The title of your recent story, “Freedom of Mind,” was right on target. Some of my students were “lifers” with no chance of parole or release in the near future. But they were achieving a degree in self-worth and self-satisfaction—and I was receiving many of the same benefits.

It’s some of the most rewarding teaching I’ve ever done.

James E. Crisp ’76PhD

Raleigh, NC

The irony hit me the moment I read the title on your cover. Freedom of mind is hardly a hallmark of today’s Yale, whose inmates are not convicted persons but convicted ideas—specifically, classical liberal and conservative ideas, imprisoned by progressive ideologues. True freedom of mind cannot flourish apart from a culture uncompromisingly committed to freedom of expression.

I would be remiss not to salute YPEI itself. Having taught college classes for over 50 years myself, it doesn’t surprise me that the student prisoners are far hungrier for and more appreciative of learning than many of Yale’s spoiled and entitled students. Kudos to Zelda Roland for her unfailing leadership of the project.

James Stiver ’62

West Columbia, SC

I greatly enjoyed the article “Freedom of Mind.” Being active in Jubilee Prison Ministry here in Texas, I couldn’t agree more that prisoner education does a great deal to improve self-esteem and confidence. I would also add that helping prisoners come to faith and learning how to pray and read the Bible is another boost to help prisoners with their prison journey and more so upon their release. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice recognizes these two factors as a major contributor to low recidivism among prisoners who are released from prison. I also see this from a first-hand perspective, having worked with prisoners for many years.

Bob Leilich ’65CTrans

Woodlands, TX


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