From inmate to student: Yale, University of New Haven program graduates first class

Seven men from a Connecticut prison crossed the stage at a ceremony in June, celebrating the major accomplishment.

Graduates Alpha Jalloh, left, and Marcus Harvin, right, embrace at the first-ever college graduation ceremony at the MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution on June 9 in Suffield, Conn.
Graduates Alpha Jalloh, left, and Marcus Harvin, right, embrace at the first-ever college graduation ceremony at the MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution on June 9 in Suffield, Conn. (Jessica Hill/AP) (AP)

At first, Marcus Harvin called it a “blessing” and then changed his word to “miracle.” The former inmate spent six years in prison at the MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution and walked out as a college student last year.

This year, he was among the first to graduate from a program and partnership between the University of New Haven’s Prison Education Program and the Yale Prison Education Initiative at Dwight Hall. Harvin joined six other men to make up the first class to matriculate through the program.

The Connecticut father was sentenced to prison in 2016 for a drunken driving crash that left his two young children injured. In 2021, he was accepted into the prison program. In May 2022, he was released and finished his degree at the University of New Haven (UNH) campus a year later.

Now he aspires to become a defense attorney and perform pro bono work for people who can’t afford adequate representation.

Graduate Marcus Harvin, right, fist bumps an inmate and fellow student at the first-ever college graduation ceremony at the MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution on June 9.
Graduate Marcus Harvin, right, fist bumps an inmate and fellow student at the first-ever college graduation ceremony at the MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution on June 9. (Jessica Hill/AP) (AP)

“Yes, we've made mistakes,” Harvin told Yahoo News. “But just because we've made mistakes doesn't mean that we can't make a difference in this world and make a change within ourselves, so that the things we've done will just be the things we've done, not the things we do.”

How it got started

Zelda Roland, a Yale alum, created the program in 2016 and reached out to UNH for the partnership. She modeled it after a similar program she worked in at Wesleyan University.

Inmates at MacDougall-Walker officially started taking classes at UNH in 2018 and the UNH partnership started in 2021. The program gives inmates the opportunity to earn two- and four-year college degrees. It has just under 40 active students at MacDougall-Walker.

Future graduate Evan Holmes wipes tears from his eyes after delivering a speech at the first-ever college graduation ceremony at MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution in June.
Future graduate Evan Holmes wipes tears from his eyes after delivering a speech at the first-ever college graduation ceremony at the MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution in June. (Jessica Hill/AP) (AP)

So far, it has been a success. “We have a 100% retention rate for anyone who hasn't been transferred or released from the prison,” Roland told Yahoo News. She noted that the program has now been extended to the federal women’s prison in Danbury, Conn.

The program is far from easy. “We work in a prison that has about 1,500 men; it's the largest prison in the Northeast,” Roland said. “Six hundred people asked to be considered for our first 12-person class. So it is extremely competitive to get into this program and it takes serious commitment to get through it,” she said.

Changing lives

For Harvin, the juxtaposition of taking classes behind bars and on campus could be a tough adjustment.

“They challenged us [in prison] probably more than the students on campus get challenged,” Harvin, who studied in prison and on campus, told Yahoo News. “And the environment makes it even that much more difficult to excel because you'll have an unmotivated cellmate that might be making noise all day, all night, yet you still got a 10-page paper due in 10 hours.”

Greta LaFleur, an associate professor of American Studies at Yale, right, smiles as she listens to graduates speak at the graduation ceremony at MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution in June.
Greta LaFleur, an associate professor of American Studies at Yale, right, smiles as she listens to graduates speak at the graduation ceremony at MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution in June. (Jessica Hill/AP) (AP)

In June, Harvin was able to walk at UNH’s ceremony as he had been released from prison, but he also returned to McDougall-Walker for its graduation ceremony, at which he received his associate degree in general studies from UNH.

Harvin said the program helped him make a complete turnaround. After finishing high school in 2006, he went to Eastern Connecticut State University and left with a 1.7 GPA. He said he finished UNH with around a 3.8 GPA.

Each graduate of the program received high honors, meaning each had earned at least a 3.5 GPA. Although the degrees do not say “Yale” on them, a transcript will show that the men took classes at the prestigious Ivy League institution.

Graduate Alpha Jalloh walks with his diploma past correction officers congratulating him at the graduation ceremony at the MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution.
Graduate Alpha Jalloh walks with his diploma past correction officers congratulating him at the graduation ceremony at the MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution. (Jessica Hill/AP) (AP)

Speaking to Yale News, the class’s valedictorian, Alpha Jalloh, talked about growing up in the South Bronx with few possibilities. “I am the first person among my friends to get a college degree,” he said. “True change can only happen when we dream big and dream different.”

It’s not a free education

Roland says the cost of the program is covered by private grants and donations. “It is not money that could be used for any other purpose,” she said. “It's not money that's being taken from anybody else. It's money that is specifically being contributed with the purpose of investing in the leadership and citizenship of incarcerated students.”

Conversely, programs like Roland’s could save taxpayers money. According to a report from the Vera Institute of Justice, postsecondary education can lead to less recidivism, meaning fewer former inmates returning to prison. The report suggests that every dollar invested in educational programs in prisons yields taxpayer savings of four to five dollars from reduced incarceration costs.

Community impact

Most people in prison — more than 95% of those serving time — will be released at some point in the future and reintegrated into society.

Graduates Alpha Jalloh, left, and Marcus Harvin, right, congratulate each other at graduation at the MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution.
Graduates Alpha Jalloh, left, and Marcus Harvin, right, congratulate each other at graduation at the MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution. (Jessica Hill/AP) (AP)

That said, formerly incarcerated people who participate in postsecondary education programs have 28% lower odds of returning to prison than those who do not, according to RAND Corporation. Many criminal justice experts believe correctional facilities should prioritize rehabilitation over punishment.

Postsecondary education programs can also help make correctional facilities safer, prompting fewer violent incidents than prisons without them and creating safer working conditions for staff.

As for Harvin, he said he is now co-teaching a Yale class with Roland and is a fellow in Yale’s Access to Law School program and a President's Public Service Fellow at UNH. His family couldn’t be more proud.

“My family is extremely happy and they just laugh because this is not the typical story,” he said. “But it could be if more programs or more people are given access to programs like this.”