Norwich native among 18 who received degrees at Cheshire prison
Cheshire — Eighteen incarcerated men, including one from Norwich, received associate in science degrees Wednesday during the Wesleyan University Center for Prison Education’s first-ever graduation ceremony.
The center has offered courses in Cheshire Correctional Institution, a maximum-security prison, since 2009 and expanded to the women-only York Correctional Institution in Niantic in 2013.
It partnered with Middlesex Community College, whose name is on the degrees, just two years ago. Middlesex is one of 67 colleges participating in a pilot program in which qualifying prisoners can pay for their courses with Pell grants.
The graduates, who are 26 to 55 years old and from all over Connecticut, took courses taught by Wesleyan and Middlesex faculty, navigating the difficulties and demands of prison life along the way.
“National research shows college programs in prison transform lives,” said Steven Minkler, interim campus CEO and dean of academic affairs at Middlesex.
“The Vera Institute of Justice has found that helping people who are incarcerated advance their education improves safety in prison and upon release, spurs economic renewal in the communities they return to and changes the educational trajectory of future generations,” he said.
Incarcerated people who receive some type of post-secondary education in prison are 43 percent less likely to return to prison, Minkler said.
Forty-seven men, many of whom were on hand for the graduation, are enrolled in the Cheshire program, while 28 women take courses at York. Both programs are highly selective and supported by Wesleyan students and other volunteers, Minkler said.
Grants, donations and federal Pell money fund the Center for Prison Education.
‘We have to be an example’
Three of the graduates delivered powerful speeches Wednesday, tackling the harm of labels, objectification and judgment while being candid about their lives.
Norwich’s James Davis III, 42, talked about growing up with a refrigerator that was sometimes full but often barren. He spoke of getting underwear for Christmas, of wearing off-brand clothes, of realizing early on that people judged his family for using food stamps.
“The shame that came with being poor made me angry,” he said.
Like his mother, Davis fell in love with reading. He used it as a way to escape.
“In fourth grade, I read ‘The Call of the Wild,’” he said to the crowd of friends, family, faculty, inmates and even victims. “It was my ticket to California and the Arctic, where I saw the beauty of nature for the first time.”
“I’m a poor kid from Norwich,” he said. “I escaped poverty (when I was reading) but only for a short time.”
Davis was arrested in 2000 and sentenced in 2004 to 48 years in prison for fatally shooting 25-year-old Joseph DuBose of New London and injuring three others at a now-defunct Norwich bar in 1999. It took three trials for a jury to convict Davis, who maintained his innocence the whole time.
“We are gathered in a maximum-security prison for a college graduation ceremony,” he said. “That’s big.”
“We all thank you,” he said on behalf of his classmates to those involved with the program. “We thank all who judge us not as who we were but as who we are.”
Davis said afterward that he’s not the same as he was at age 24, as is true for most people who grow older. He made a conscious decision to change himself for the better in 2008, he said, although not for any particular reason.
“I didn’t want to feel the way I was feeling or think the way I was thinking anymore,” he said. “And I’ll keep changing and being a better person than I was before.”
“Education is always a beginning,” he said. “And a college degree is not the end.”
Davis, just 18 years into his sentence, is a mentor with the prison’s T.R.U.E. program, which aims to reduce recidivism among inmates with shorter sentences.
“They’re constantly watching,” he said of the mentees in the program. “If we’re trying to change them, we have to be an example.”
In his keynote speech, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy shared his own struggles with learning and physical disabilities.
“As late as fourth grade, I was thought to be mentally retarded,” he said. “I couldn’t catch a ball or hold a pencil or button my shirt.”
"But for the grace of God," he said, his bitterness might have led him in a different direction.
“Now is the time for you to rise to the occasion,” he said to the graduates. “You need to be living proof that a different approach could make a difference.”
“You found this experience,” he said. “You lived this experience. Now go out and live it with others. Inspire others — not simply by your words, but by your acts.”
Editor's Note: This version corrects a photo caption that inadvertently identified Wesleyan University President Michael Roth as 42-year-old James Davis III of Norwich.
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