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At York, nothing bars these inmates from getting an education

East Lyme — It’s not every day that “Pomp and Circumstance” blares from the confines of a prison.

But Tuesday night, seven women serving time at the Janet S. York Correctional Institution received Associate in Science degrees, replete with the formality and regalia of any college or high school graduation.

In a 4 p.m. ceremony at York in Niantic held by the Department of Correction in partnership with Wesleyan University’s Center for Prison Education and Middlesex Community College, the incarcerated women — Lissette Chiclana, Ashley Howard, Carrie Jones, Robin Ledbetter, Krista Pikora, Tracy Shumaker and Sara VanDeusen — received degrees after fulfilling the proper academic requirements.

The Center for Prison Education, with faculty from Middlesex and Wesleyan, has taught accredited courses to prisoners in Cheshire Correctional Institution, a men’s maximum security prison, and York, a women’s state prison, since 2009. The Center also uses undergraduate volunteers for aspects such as tutoring, according to its website. 

Since Wesleyan doesn’t award associate degrees, Middlesex is the conferring institution, although one graduate’s degree came from Naugatuck Valley Community College.

CPE Program Manager Allie Cislo said many inmates who participate in these programs already have their GED or some college credits. The CPE is funded by Pell funds, private grants and individual donations.

“The Center’s students are admitted through a rigorous admissions process, including multiple essays and faculty interviews,” the website reads. “Over 90 women applied to join the inaugural class at York, while over 300 men have applied for admission to the Center’s Cheshire campus since 2009.”

In 2016, through a public-private partnership with Middlesex, students could earn an associate degree rather than being offered classes only. The first ceremony was held last year, and six women from York were awarded a degree.

Steven Minkler, CEO of Middlesex, gave opening remarks illustrative of the evening’s hopeful tone. “You challenge us, you encourage us, and most importantly, you inspire us,” he said, addressing the graduates. “You are among the best students in this country. We will forever be your alma mater.”

Wesleyan President Michael Roth was slated to be at the event but couldn’t make the trip due to inclement weather.

York Warden Sharonda Carlos expressed immense pride in the graduates. She recognized the tenacity it takes to attain a college degree in prison. “Incarceration is difficult, and despite those challenges, the women in front of you ... achieved,” she said. “Let today serve as a stepping stone for your next goal. Momentum has power, use it.”

Carlos also noted that re-entry into society after prison is complicated. Before the ceremony, Cislo said that CPE tries to stay in contact with and provide academic advising to program participants after they’ve been released from prison.

Shumaker was the student speaker. Her speech revolved around the importance of education not only for people in prison, but for women in general. She said she was a high school dropout and single teenage mother who went to prison for domestic violence.

In 2007, Shumaker was sentenced to 25 years in prison for murdering her husband in his sleep in their Colchester home, saying it seemed the only way to escape an abusive marriage.

After an educator at the prison encouraged her to do so, she passed her GED test while in prison, even though she hadn’t had formal schooling in at least 15 years.

“Due to my time and my crime, it was hard for me to pursue educational opportunities,” Shumaker said during her speech. “Our futures get brighter and brighter with each class we take.”

Shumaker recalls the sense of gratification she felt when she read the term “Falstaffian proportions,” a Shakespeare reference, and understood what it meant. She also knows what tariffs are now. When she received her associate degree, she wrote her 17-year-old daughter, who cried when she learned the news and wrote back saying she looked up to Shumaker. Her daughter has just recently applied to college.

New York Public Radio reporter Cindy Rodriguez delivered the commencement address. She emphasized the power, resilience and strength of the graduates.

“I hope you take your education and you run with it,” Rodriguez said. “With learning comes growth and comes change.”

“Let yourself bask in this accomplishment,” she added. “Don’t get caught up in the past, and don’t think about the future right now."

The approximately 70 people in the gymnasium cheered as the graduates received their degrees with wide grins. Once the formalities concluded, Shumaker discussed the perspective education can give a person.

“You get a bigger sense of the world,” she said. “What I learned was more important than the diploma.”

Shumaker has three children. She expects to be released from York in 2029. Wesleyan is working on instituting a bachelor's degree program by next fall, and Shumaker plans to enroll. She said she hopes to work with families affected by domestic violence once she is released.

s.spinella@theday.com

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