Seven people who've been incarcerated at MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution, wearing black cap and gowns, listen to their commencement speakers in a dimly-lit room.
Seven people received associate degrees after completing a program, established via Yale University and the University of New Haven, offering college courses to currently and formerly incarcerated students. Gov. Ned Lamont gave the commencement speech. Jaden Edison / CT Mirror

Gov. Ned Lamont on Friday spoke at a commencement ceremony for people incarcerated at Suffield’s MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution, a rare visit for the second-term governor who has faced backlash for his record on criminal justice. 

Seven people in black graduation attire with blue and gold sashes — Maurice Blackwell, Kyle Gonzalez, David Grant, Marcus Harvin, Evan Holmes, Alpha Jalloh and Michael Stokes Jr. — received associate degrees after completing the Yale Prison Initiative and University of New Haven Prison Education Program, which offers college courses for academic credits to currently and formerly incarcerated students. Friday marked the program’s first graduation ceremony.

The celebration took place inside a visitation room packed with family, friends, corrections officers, prison officials and Lamont, who was invited to offer the commencement speech. Each of the seven graduates also provided testimony, touching on the pandemic interruptions that created isolation and uncertainty around the life of the program, the emancipating feeling of attaining a formal education and the implications of such a ceremony transpiring in a maximum security prison. 

“We no longer are the people that they said we were. Ultimately we have reached the concrete ceiling,” said Holmes, soon eliciting a standing ovation from the dozens in attendance. “But those cast iron chains won’t allow us to break through. So, yes, freedom is a constant struggle. We have struggled for so long, and we have to be free.”

Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont stands behind a podium, speaking to seven people who've been incarcerated at MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution and received their associate degrees.
Gov. Ned Lamont gives the commencement speech at MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution. Jaden Edison / CT Mirror

During his remarks, Lamont regarded the event as “the most moving graduation I’ve ever been to” and recited back to each graduate a piece of their oration that resonated most with him, notably the delicacy of time and the opportunity for a fresh start.

“We’re all here because we’re so proud of you. I’m here because I’m so proud of you,” Lamont said. “And most importantly, I loved hearing the pride you have in yourself, and what that meant, and what this ceremony is all about.” 

But the backdrop of Lamont’s affirming words and expressions of support at MacDougall-Walker was his relationship with criminal justice reform. Community organizers and formerly incarcerated people have criticized the governor for his reluctance toward measures aimed at improving the lives of the roughly 10,000 individuals, mostly people of color, living behind bars. 

In 2020, as COVID-19 raged through the state’s correctional facilities, Lamont refused to release people nearing the end of their sentences — as states across the country had started doing to combat the spread of the deadly virus. 

The next year, after the House and Senate passed a landmark bill limiting the use of solitary confinement and establishing independent oversight of Connecticut’s jails and prisons, Lamont frustrated proponents when he vetoed it and countered it with an executive order that many saw as lackluster. 

During the 2023 legislative session, a bill that would have limited routine strip searches from occurring was curtailed after Lamont’s administration and the Department of Correction indicated to legislators that they wouldn’t have supported it. Instead, officials opted to commission a study around the implementation of body scanning technology. 

And recently, Lamont paused commutations after pressure from Republican legislators and white crime victims who expressed dissatisfaction with a sharp increase in the number of reduced sentences — people who had already served the bulk of their time. In response to the clamor, he removed Carleton Giles, a Black man who spent more than three decades as a Norwalk police officer, as chair of the body overseeing the process. Black residents made up most of the commutations.

On Friday, Lamont did not take questions from the media after his roughly six-minute commencement speech, which didn’t include any reference to his administration’s previous actions. However, many in attendance were optimistic that testimony from the new graduates resonated with him.

“It was so amazing to see the governor here in this room, listen to their stories and then speak to each one of our graduates. They felt that it was so powerful,” Zelda Roland, founding director of the education program, told The Connecticut Mirror. “It seemed to me that he really believes in what we’re doing, and he really is proud of our students. And I’m excited to see what he could do with that.”

For some of the students, the day presented a rare opportunity to address Lamont — and to plead for his partnership in creating a more humane environment for the people serving time. 

Blackwell, one of the graduates and a recipient of a sentence commutation, declared during his speech that prison wasn’t going to be his second language. And in an interview with the CT Mirror, he said that the general public often has an inaccurate perception of what people who are incarcerated do with their time. So for Lamont and others to see that people “are deserving of a second chance,” he said, was a major plus. 

“It’s all about word of mouth. It started off with a core set of people that came in, and they always tell their friends and colleagues, ‘Why don’t you just come in and meet these guys?’ Once they come in, it’s a whole different story,” said Blackwell, whose time was shortened from 60 years to 25 years. He has served 23. “So we’re hoping that it has the same effect on the governor.”

Gonzalez, a graduate in year 11 of a 15-year sentence who proclaimed during his speech that higher education was about denouncing limitations and challenging one’s mind, said he wanted to show Lamont that he “can support us and that there’s room for us to grow.” It just takes the willingness to do so, he said.

And as the afternoon wound down, the graduates and their families were scattered across the room — thanking the supporters in attendance, snapping photos for the memory books, chatting over Jimmy John’s sub sandwiches. By the time people started to leave, Lamont was already gone. 

Still, some felt optimistic. 

“I hope he heard us,” Gonzalez said. 

Jaden is CT Mirror's justice reporter. He was previously a summer reporting fellow at The Texas Tribune and interned at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies. He received a bachelor's degree in electronic media from Texas State University and a master's degree in investigative journalism from the Toni Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism at Columbia University.