N.Y. Prison Religion Program Helps Turn Lives around SEMINARY BEHIND BARS

By Alexandra Marks, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, March 11, 1997 | Go to article overview

N.Y. Prison Religion Program Helps Turn Lives around SEMINARY BEHIND BARS


Alexandra Marks, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Inside the castle-thick walls of Sing Sing prison here, more than a dozen convicted murderers, drug dealers, and thieves sit in a cramped classroom arguing the merits of various theologies.

The question: Does the development of a female image of God serve to enhance a sense of community or create barriers?

Such esoteric topics are routine fare behind bars here in an unusual program aimed at giving inmates master's degrees in theology - and transforming lives. The program, run by the New York Theological Seminary (NYTS), is designed to prepare inmates for return to their communities as leaders and healers. By most accounts, it is working. At a time when the repeat offender rate in New York stands at 42 percent - and 34.7 percent nationwide - only 5 percent of the inmates who complete the program and are released, end up back in prison. Yet the program, which other seminaries are considering replicating, may soon go out of existence. It is in danger of becoming a casualty in the national debate over the role of prisons as places of punishment or rehabilitation. "The seminary is there to put the crowning touches on the turn-around the individual has already begun for himself," says the Rev. Lonnie McLeod, one of the founders of the NYTS program. The threat comes not from budget cuts - the program is paid for entirely by the seminary and private donations - but from a lack of qualified students. Three years ago, at the height of the get-tough on crime backlash, both the federal and New York State governments made prison inmates ineligible to receive educational grants. The result, the pool of qualified inmates - those with the necessary bachelor's degree - has shrunk dramatically. "It's a bone-headed idea," says the Rev. George (Bill) Webber, director of the NYTS Sing Sing Program, noting that the higher the education level, the less likely an inmate is to return to prison. "Like so much of what we're doing, it's stupid on fiscal grounds: It costs so much more to put them back in prison." But New York Gov. George Pataki's office doesn't view the issue from the grounds of long-term fiscal soundness. "Quite simply, prison is for punishment," says Chris Chichester, director of communication for the state's division of the budget. "New York is not in the business of rewarding those who commit crimes with a subsidized education." For the 14 men who sit around the Sing Sing classroom three hours a day, five days a week, prison has been a punitive and painful experience. But is has also been a transforming one - in large part, because of that subsidized education. All have been in prison for more than 10 years. All but one, earned their bachelor's degrees there. Almost half, arrived as high school dropouts. "The college program helped us open up our consciousness, expand our horizons and put us in touch with our own humanity and that of others," says Shuaib Abdur-Raheem, who is about to begin his 25th year in prison on a murder conviction. "This program just enhances it even more." Their course of study is as intellectually rigorous as any graduate level course, and then some. "We have to have first-rate faculty because the accrediting body assumes we're second rate because it's inmates, mostly black and Hispanics, and it's in a prison," says Webber. It was inmates who first broached the idea of starting a master's program with Webber and NYTS. A small group, including Mr. McLeod, had finished their bachelor's degrees and wanted to do graduate work. That was in 1981, in the wake of the Attica riot when prison reform was at the top of the political agenda. By 1982, the program was up and running. …

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