CHESHIRE, Conn. – Roberto Alvarado has lived with the label of convicted killer for almost two decades. On Wednesday he added another label — college graduate.
Alvardao, who is serving a 50-year felony murder sentence for a 1999 shooting in Danbury, received an associate of science degree.
He is part of the first graduating class from a prison education program started nine years ago by Wesleyan University.
The 18 men and six women officially graduated from Middlesex Community College, which partnered with the Wesleyan Center for Prison Education two years ago.
"The people in here are not going away," said Alvarado, who has been taking classes for almost a decade. "Most of us will someday return to our community. We're just so grateful someone is giving us an opportunity to make another life for ourselves."
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy served as commencement speaker at the unusual ceremony held behind prison walls at Cheshire Correctional Institution. A similar ceremony for the women took place last week at the York Correctional Institution.
He stressed to the graduates that for the sake of others in the program, they must not fail.
"You need to be the living proof that a different approach will make a difference," Malloy said.
School officials noted that classes the prisoners took are the same ones — and with the same standards — as those offered on campus. Inmates, they said, often have a higher grade-point average than traditional college students.
Fewer than 20 prisoners a year are chosen for the program from a large pool who submit academic applications, complete with an essay. No consideration is given to their crimes or the length of their sentences.
The program is paid for mostly through private sources, but 14 percent of the money comes from federal grants.
Program manager Noah Barth said critics often wonder why those serving time for murder and other violent offenses are being offered classes that many outside of prison walls cannot afford to take. Tuition for traditional Wesleyan students is more than $54,000 a year.
Barth points to statistics which show those who receive higher education behind bars are 43 percent less likely to commit other crimes once they are released. He also notes they often pass the education along, serving as mentors by starting reading groups and distributing copies of class materials to other prisoners.
"Education helps people prepare for life after prison, but it also helps them develop the skills to lead a more full, productive life both inside and outside," he said. "We've had several students talk to us about how, after being in the program for some time, it is now the first time that they can help their son or daughter with their homework when they came for a visit. That bond can have a huge impact on that child's life."
Wesleyan is part of a consortium of liberal arts colleges running education programs in the nation's prisons, where college programs almost disappeared after a 1994 federal crime bill barred prisoners from applying for federal Pell education grants.
Wesleyan, in Middletown, has offered accreted courses to the men at Cheshire since 2009 and expanded those offerings in 2013 to include the women at York. They were not able to offer degrees until partnering with Middlesex for an accredited associates program in 2016.
Some federal money returned under the Obama administration's three-year pilot Second Chance Pell program, making it easier for Wesleyan to start its partnership with the community college, Barth said.
The pairing gives the program access to a system that has expertise in dealing with non-traditional students. It also makes it easier for students to transfer to state schools when they are released, he said.
James Jeter, 38, was paroled a year ago after earning 20 academic credits inside Cheshire. He now works for a similar prison education program at Yale University and plans to attend Trinity College this fall. He was back at Cheshire on Wednesday to watch his former classmates graduate.
"This program launched me in a lot of ways," he said. "I know for some this is hard to swallow, but doing this for these guys, it's just the right thing to do."