SUFFIELD, Conn. — Seven inmates were the first to earn associate degrees from the University of New Haven while serving a prison sentence inside the state’s maximum-security prison in Suffield.
In the same room where inmates keep table-length distance from visiting loved ones, a University of New Haven graduation was held Friday—two weeks after the university’s 2023 commencement ceremony in Bridgeport.
“By the time we were in our late teens, the structural and physical violence of our surroundings coupled with some of our own bad decisions had ruined our childhoods—shepherding us to prisons or pine boxes,” said inmate and graduate Alpha Jalloh, recipient of the highest achievement award.
It’s been a long time coming for the first graduates at MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution. The college experience inside a maximum-security prison started with classes taught by Yale University professors. Then halted entirely amid the pandemic.
“We started this journey in the summer of 2018 without the funding for another class. Degrees weren’t even a thought. We knew it was up to us to keep the program alive, so we worked tirelessly to prove not only our worth but to demonstrate the potential that’s encased in concrete nationwide," Graduate Evan Holmes said.
The University of New Haven expanded the program in 2021 with two- and four-year degrees. That allowed inmate #375913 and six others to expand beyond the limitations of struggle, past mistakes, and concrete walls to earn associate degrees in liberal arts and recognition from commencement speaker Governor Ned Lamont.
“You’re never too old to dream, history can never determine your dreams, age can never limit your dreams, and if you don’t dream you don’t achieve great things," Gov. Ned Lamont said.
Family members and friends like those who grew up together in a South Bronx shelter embraced at the ceremony for the first time in six years. They traveled to Suffield Friday to celebrate 30-year-old valedictorian, Alpha Jalloh, who said he now plans to go back to the South Bronx to uplift his community as a leader after he’s released from MacDougall in six months.
“Looking at him from six years ago from it’s a big difference. I never would have experienced him even thinking about school,” said Raemony Dunn of New York.
Gary Hassell also of the Bronx added, “I know he worked very hard for this degree. You know, they can’t take that from him ever. He has that for life.”
The two friends said they’re inspired by what their friend managed to do behind bars.
“Use learning to empower yourselves, my beautiful brothers because the world needs each and every one of your voices,” Jalloh said from the podium.
There are more than 20 inmates who will be among the next cohorts of graduates watched as spectators. Graduates shared lunch with their loved ones following the ceremony.
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