There is a large, brick building in Cheshire, Connecticut with imposing rust-brown columns out front. Inside, male students ranging from 22 to 60 years old study for exams and chat with professors. It looks a bit like an avant-garde high school, but the facility is actually home to Cheshire Correctional Institution, where student-inmates take some of the same courses as Wesleyan students.
James Jeter served 20 years in Cheshire, where he took 22 Wesleyan courses and worked towards an undergraduate degree, resulting in his current enrollment as an undergraduate student at Trinity College. During his sentence, Jeter also manufactured plastic bags, worked as a janitor, and tutored inmates for their GEDs.
But many of his jobs, Jeter said in an interview with The Politic, felt like “slave labor.”
“It’s not necessarily hard work,” he said. “But the relationship between you and your employer is really demeaning.”
Jeter is not alone in recognizing the dire working conditions in penal institutions. From August 21 to September 9, incarcerated individuals across the U.S. went on strike to protest inhumane labor and living conditions.
About 2.3 million men and women are incarcerated in the U.S. today, and thousands of them have jobs, working in kitchens, cleaning bathrooms, and performing strenuous labor to ensure that prisons run effectively. According to the Marshall Project, state and federal prisoners are paid, on average, 20 and 31 cents per hour, respectively, for their work, and many of them work between eight and ten hours per day. This fall, protestors participated in work strikes, hunger strikes, and boycotts, meaning that inmates stopped spending money in commissary. Organizers issued ten national demands, two of which called for expanded and improved educational opportunities for inmates.
Jeter, like the strikers, sees education as a meaningful alternative to menial labor and hopes that other incarcerated individuals can reap the benefits of higher education as he did. His conviction in the importance of empowering inmates through education brought him to work for the Yale Prison Education Initiative (YPEI), which makes Yale courses accessible to incarcerated students in Connecticut.
During the summer of 2018, YPEI piloted a college education program that allowed incarcerated individuals to obtain academic credit for Yale courses taught by Yale professors and graduate students.
Zelda Roland ’08 GRD ’16, the founding director of YPEI, believes the initiative’s mission is inseparable from Yale’s: like Yale, YPEI seeks exceptional students who are eager to learn and offers them a liberal arts education.
“The same benefits that you would argue a liberal arts education has for anyone from all over the world—that’s what we’re offering to people who happen to be incarcerated,” Roland said.
During the summer of 2018, YPEI began offering Yale classes to a group of students in the Connecticut prison system who had been selected through a competitive admissions process. Their classes are identical to those offered on Yale’s campus during the academic year, down to the syllabi. A Yale pennant hangs in the prison classroom that YPEI uses.
Roland met Jeter when she was working as a volunteer in the Wesleyan Center for Prison Education at Cheshire Correctional Institution, where he was serving time for the 1997 murder of 19-year-old Walter Jaynes.
Born and raised in New Haven, Jeter remembers dedicating himself to school and family when he was young. But when he was nine years old, his father passed away, following a long struggle with drug addiction. At age 17, Jeter, who had started dealing drugs, was robbed; later, in an attempt to retaliate, Jeter shot the person he thought was the robber. He later learned that the man he killed had nothing to do with the robbery. In 2000, Jeter was sentenced to 30 years in prison, but he received parole in 2017.
Today, Roland and Jeter work at neighboring desks in their second-floor Dwight Hall office on Yale’s Old Campus. They are united by their mission: to bring educational programs to incarcerated individuals.
While in prison, Jeter took Wesleyan courses through the Wesleyan Center for Prison Education. Many of them were writing-intensive, and he had to compose analytical essays. “I learned how to research, how to organize my thought processes,” he said. Now, he added, “I can stand on my own thoughts.”
Cheryl Greenberg, a Trinity College professor who taught Jeter in Cheshire Correctional Institution, said that he was an active and interesting participant in discussions who immediately stood out in the classroom. With each session, Jeter continued to impress her, often staying after class to ask her about the material and upcoming assignments. “His papers started out somewhere in the B-range, and then went up to the A-minus-range,” Greenberg said. “And then he was getting solid A’s.”
Greenberg’s standards for Jeter were no different than her standards for students at Trinity, she said. Inevitably, though, the constraints of prison life make learning profoundly different. Greenberg’s students have almost no control over their daily schedules. Lacking access to internet, audio, and visual resources, they could not conduct their own outside research, so Greenberg compiled paper sources for them before class. And many of her Cheshire students entered the classroom with less experience in writing than her students at Trinity.
Some readings Greenberg would have liked to assign were not allowed. Though she usually concludes her Trinity course with The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, an exposé on the U.S. prison system, she had to adjust her curriculum because the correctional facility did not approve it.
The coursework resonated with her incarcerated students in ways that sometimes surprised Greenberg. She remembers asking a class for opinions on a runaway slave narrative, expecting obvious answers about the horrors of slavery. One student raised his hand and connected the book to his own experience in what was, to him, another kind of slavery: prison.
Greenberg remembers him saying, “When I got here, I took one look at the walls and one look at the barbed wire, and thought, ‘I can’t stay here. I’ve gotta get out of here. And then I thought, if I escape—if I run away—I will never be truly free. I will always have to be hiding. And so I decided to stay.”
Greenberg was stunned. “I thought, Oh my God, in my 30 years of teaching this book, I have never thought of it in quite that way,” she said.
Jeter’s academic experience was similarly illuminating. “Prison is a place where you don’t really get to be vulnerable, so education in prison creates vulnerability,” he said.
“Prison is a place where you are held accountable for one act, or several acts, but you are always held accountable for them in your daily interactions with the authorities, at all times. There is no redeeming,” Jeter explained.
For him, education made room for mistakes and personal growth. Learning felt humanizing—unlike making bags or mopping floors.
The dehumanizing effects of labor have played a key role in driving prison strikes, past and present. Greenberg was teaching about Attica, an uprising in a New York prison in the 1960s, during this year’s prison strike.
“I was really struck by how the things that they were protesting then are the same things that they are protesting now,” she said. “I think that this strike is so powerful in bringing the attention to where it needs to be, and now, I just hope people are willing to listen.”
To Jeter, the power of education is at the heart of rehabilitation.
“Education allows a lot of men to see that they don’t need redemption, that they were never undeemed,” he theorized. It builds confidence, too.
“I can just stand on some merit of my own and grow,” he said.
A previous version of the article stated that student-inmates in Cheshire take some of the same courses as Yale students. This has been corrected to say that these student-inmates take the same courses as Wesleyan students.
A previous version of the article stated: “His conviction in the importance of empowering inmates through education brought him to the Yale Prison Education Initiative (YPEI), which makes Yale courses accessible to incarcerated students in Connecticut.” It has been reflected to state: “His conviction in the importance of empowering inmates through education brought him to work for the Yale Prison Education Initiative (YPEI), which makes Yale courses accessible to incarcerated students in Connecticut.”
A previous version of the article stated that James Jeter took 22 courses. It has been changed to reflect that Jeter took 22 Wesleyan courses.
A previous version of the article stated that “A Yale pennant hangs in every prison classroom.” The article has been changed to reflect that “A Yale pennant hangs in the prison classroom that YPEI uses.”
A previous version of the article stated that “Inside, male students ranging from 16 to 24 years old study for exams and chat with professors.” It has been changed to reflect that “Inside, male students ranging from 22 to 60 years old study for exams and chat with professors.”