It started out as the Cheshire Reformatory in 1909. The goal of the Reformatory was to keep male prisoners aged 16-24 out of the adult prison population. The Reformatory evolved over the years, and now it’s Connecticut’s Cheshire Correctional Institution, where male adult offenders carry out long sentences.
It’s a level four facility and includes both protective custody and restrictive housing. There’s a fair bit of history in the 25-acre complex too. It’s been said that the cells of the north block were repurposed from New York’s famous Sing Sing prison.
That’s not the only historical aspect of the intuition. This year marked an exciting milestone for the Center of Prison Education (CPE) – for the first time, incarcerated offenders doing time in maximum security graduated from a prison education program with associate degrees. Cheshire Correction Intuition hosted the grad.
Wesleyan University’s Center for Prison Education and Middlesex Community College collaborated to offer university courses to inmates in Cheshire Correctional Institution. Students from Wesleyan volunteer to help the inmates both in study halls at the prison, or on the school campus by providing research and project assistance. No slack is given for the inmates; they are expected to study and complete assignments as though they were on the Wesleyan campus.
The first graduating class from Cheshire Correctional Intuition smiled proudly on August 1, 2018, as Pomp and Circumstance played. They wore graduation gowns and mortarboards. Family members were there for support. Even though it took place in a maximum security prison, the ceremony was as impactful on the grads and the guests as any other graduation.
One of the speakers at the event was Wesleyan President Michael Roth ’78. Roth had been a college president for 18 years and is well versed in commencement speeches. He usually read from a script, but this time, he said, “Walking into Cheshire today, seeing the graduates—there is no script. You are making history of the best kind, that allows other people to build on your accomplishments. Our thanks to those students, faculty, and staff at Wesleyan who envisioned this day, who saw that incarceration should not be the end of the line, but an opportunity to change your lives.”
Several of the graduates also spoke during the ceremony, noting the positive impact education had on their lives. Inmate and graduate James Davis III said, “Wesleyan introduced me to a new kind of judgment. In CPE, we’re being judged, but with our permission…. We thank all of you who judge us as we are, not as we were.”
The Center for Prison Education has been in operation since 2009. Its mandate is to extend Wesleyan’s campus courses into Connecticut prisons to help create “scholars and citizens who will be assets to their families and communities before and after release.”
From launching in 2009 to the first graduates with associate degrees in 2018, it’s been a long and winding road; but, for the inmates, professors, volunteers and everyone involved, it’s been a road worth traveling.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014). He regularly contributes to New York Daily News, Prison Legal News and Criminal Legal News. He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonerResource.com.