The Common Good
March-April 1999

Stone Upon Stone

by Hans Hallundbaek | March-April 1999

A remarkable new "seminary-behind-walls" program at Sing Sing prison helps to rebuild lives and offer hope.

"We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote!"..."Can anything good come out of Nazareth?"..."Come and see."..."You will see greater things than these." —John 1:45-46, 50

We found him on a bright summer morning, addressing a crowd high on the banks overlooking the majestic Hudson River, up the river from New York City. Garry Session's eyes were ablaze, but his voice was firm as he challenged the audience, "Come and see, come and see. We are enlightened. We are now agents of change."

Many had come to be with him and his 20 fellow agents of change. Session gave the students' keynote address at the graduation ceremony of a one-year, 36-credit, college-level Certificate in Ministry Program accredited by New York Theological Seminary.

The venue for the graduation was not the traditional seminary, however, with its gothic cathedral and stained glass windows. Instead, surrounded by prison guards and razor wire fences, this graduation was held in a sparse outdoor visiting area of maximum security Sing Sing Correctional Facility.

Cathedral or not, the spirit was high as the graduation proceeded. During the past year, these men had taken their most meaningful step yet up the educational ladder. Under difficult circumstances they had immensely improved their knowledge, insight, and—maybe most important—their self-confidence. As Session put it, "We are enlightened. We are now agents of change."

Up the River

SING SING CORRECTIONAL FACILITY is in the business of detention and punishment. Understandably, the facility tends to ignore the heritage of its location. Here a settlement of the peace-loving Sint-Sinck Indians roamed the shores from the morning of time, sustained by the abundance of the river and surrounding hills.

Sint-Sinck means "stone upon stone" and referred to major marble deposits, which became the economic basis for the first prison built here in 1825. Inmates were used for quarrying marble that fed the construction boom of the late 1900s in Albany and New York City.

Only 30 miles "up the river" from New York City, the prison became home to many a wayward man, and often became their last stop. In the 1930s, '40s, and '50s, Sing Sing became infamous for numerous executions. Over the years, 614 men and women have faced their maker in the Sing Sing electric chair, including notables such as Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.

Today, hard marble quarrying and regular executions have been replaced by routine and boredom in the strict operations of a modern maximum security prison. In Sing Sing, 2,300 men await the slow ticking away of 5-, 10-, or 25-year sentences or even a lifetime of imprisonment. They live in cramped, 6-by-9 cells, which are often double bunked, and roam through dungeons of dark, rambling prison buildings surrounded by walls and fences topped by miles of razor wire.

A Good Thing

CAN ANYTHING GOOD come out of Sing Sing? To the surprise of many, the answer is yes. The Sing Sing Correctional Facility is the home of a remarkable new educational innovation: a one-year college-level academic program that teaches inmates to help themselves and others. Something good can come for the individuals involved, but also for their fellow inmates and even possibly society at large. The program prepares them for a role in rebuilding their home communities upon return.

Even more remarkable, the educational Certificate in Ministry program (CMP) was initiated and is taught primarily by inmates themselves, along with a few dedicated outside volunteers. The groundwork for this program was laid more than 16 years ago, when Dr. George W. Webber of NYTS initiated a master of theology program at Sing Sing. Since then about 15 inmates have graduated from the program each year.

Budgets for state-sponsored prison college education were eliminated in 1994. In response, graduates from the master's program who still resided at Sing Sing took the initiative to introduce the ministry program to offer fellow inmates a chance for a higher education. The Certificate in Ministry program, now in its fourth year, has already graduated more than 60 men, and the waiting list for new students is constantly growing. A prison population recognizes a good thing when they see it.

The program is a unique example of fruitful cooperation between the prison administration, which provides space and facilities, inmates who conduct most of the teaching, and the seminary, which serves as the accrediting institution. The full-time job of coordinating all the activities involved and securing a smooth and productive educational atmosphere is in the able hands of Sister Marian Bohen, Ph.D., who served 25 years as a school administrator in Indonesia. "It is [the inmates'] determination that makes it work," Bohen says. "Where you have a group of dedicated people, even people who have nothing, a movement can take root and flourish."

No Pie in the Sky

AFTER HIS INSPIRATIONAL keynote speech, which was received with acclamation by fellow students, faculty, and visiting family members, Session admits that incarceration has been tough. His three years in prison, he says, "has led to my transformation, which came through a chaplain telling me that adversity introduces a man to himself." He adds, "God has brought me a long distance; now I want to go home and do good."

Terry Reed, a teacher in the ministry program, is one of the long timers. He entered prison in 1986, after what he calls an "insanity phase" of various abuses from age 14 to 22. Reed graduated from the master's program in 1992 and has been teaching "Sociology and Religious Communities" in the CMP program since its inception. "I came into prison as a Christian, but it was the seminary program that opened my eyes to the social aspect of the gospel. That discovery made faith active for me, and not just a pie in the sky," Reed comments. "I have learned the truth of 1 Corinthians 1:27, 'God chooses what is weak in the world to shame the strong.' The confidence I have gained from teaching here I plan to use for urban ministry when paroled." Reed's first parole hearing is in early 1999.

John Valverde teaches theology and ethics in the program. He recently suffered a severe setback in his efforts for release. An application for executive clemency was denied, and Valverde's hopes for early release have been crushed. He faces another three-and-a-half years before his first parole hearing, which is a long time when you are less than 30 years old and have already spent seven years behind bars. Valverde deals with his setback by focusing on the success of his fellow inmates. Recently one of his early students succeeded in earning his bachelor's degree and was subsequently accepted into the master's program. "For me that was a great joy," says Valverde. "Teaching is the most rewarding profession, and I believe that helping raise the awareness of others is doing God's work for me." Valverde plans to continue in the educational field upon release, in addition to studying criminal justice.

Come and See

MAYBE SOMETHING GOOD really can come out of Sing Sing. Several local churches have not only decided to come and see for themselves, but they've liked what they've seen. Church members are now seeking to take seriously Matthew 25:36—"I was in prison and you visited me."

For the last two years, members of South Presbyterian Church of Dobbs Ferry, New York, have been faithful visitors. Twice a month they meet with the alumni group from the Sing Sing program for fellowship, Bible study, and various seminars. Rachel Thompson, who teaches Hebrew Bible and "Introduction to Counseling" in the ministry program, says, "Teaching in prison is a fabulous experience. The inmates are highly motivated, and their willingness to participate and engage with the material is extraordinary."

Thompson admits that fellowship building with the alumni group has its ups and downs. "That's true for any community building process," Thompson says. "What matters is that our fellowship has been characterized by reciprocal spiritual development." Derek Cain, an alumnus from Brooklyn, agrees. "Outsiders bring to this place of death a symbol of life," Cain says. "They sacrifice their time without looking for anything in return, and thereby they empower us and eventually themselves." The program has been so positive for the Dobbs Ferry church that they have a waiting list of members who want to be part of the Sing Sing visiting experience.

Katonah United Methodist Church from Katonah, New York, has taken a slightly different approach. Led by certified lay speaker Debra Moore and other members, the church is in its second year of conducting an accredited class, "Methodologies for Adult Education." "The goal of the program is to teach graduates the skills needed to lead study and discussion groups and eventually to apply biblical principles to everyday life," says Moore. The efforts are highly appreciated on the inside. Baba Eng, a veteran inmate from Harlem, says, "In prison, we are stripped of humanity and hope. However when people come in from the outside, their recognition of our humanity gives us hope and keeps us connected to society at large."

Last year Jim Wallis's book The Soul of Politics was on the CMP curriculum. The students decided to invite Wallis to Sing Sing to meet him in person. He agreed to come on a late winter evening in 1997, to meet with these students who, as one observer said, had studied his book as if their freedom depended on it.

"I have seldom met a group of people so aware of the real issues and so dedicated to helping themselves and others to change," Wallis said afterward. Today, the alumni group from the Sing Sing ministry program constitutes the first prison-based chapter of Call to Renewal.

Healing and Restitution

THIS IS ONLY the beginning. As Jesus told his disciples at the early stages of his ministry, "You will see greater things than these."

The CMP program is now an obvious success inside Sing Sing, as demonstrated by the growing waiting list. It is considered an honor just to be accepted into the program. In addition, news of this innovative social/ministry/theology program is spreading to other correctional facilities in New York state. Because of Webber's foresight in developing the master's program more than 16 years ago, graduates are now located throughout the state's prison system. Anxiously seeking a meaningful project to work on, many have spearheaded CMP programs in their own facilities. A program at Green Haven is already in its second year, one at Woodbourne has finished its first year's program, and Fishkill's is halfway through its first year. Prep classes have started at Arthurkill, and Otisville has a program in the planning phase.

Back at NYTS headquarters on 29th Street in downtown Manhattan, these developments are not going unnoticed. Dean Richard Snyder decries society's treatment of prisoners. "Prisoners in this country are the logical conclusion of the direction of our society," Snyder says. "A society that does not care for its communities can not long survive. Unfortunately, today we live in a society that would rather get even than get well."

Snyder says that "prison education is the soul of this seminary, and we are called to minister to the downtrodden and forgotten. We must be there to give life and receive the life that is within these walls. Unless we can give healing and restitution to those committed, we have no reason to be in the business of training clergy."

Healing and restitution are scarce commodities in prison, where hope of release is the ultimate dream. For most it does eventually materialize—but often only to reveal how low ex-offenders are on the employment lists of our society. They may have served the sentence for their crime and been declared rehabilitated by the correctional establishment, but society punishes them for the rest of their lives.

Leslie Rogers is a case in point. An extremely bright young man who earned his master's degrees in sociology and theology in prison, Rogers was released in early 1998. Although he's now a research assistant in an HIV/AIDS service organization, it took him many interviews and background checks despite his excellent qualifications. "Being on the outside is the best of times and it is the worst of times," Rogers says. "While I now have freedom, my freedom is in direct relation to the money I have in my pocket. When I have none, I am not free any more."

Leslie really finds his spiritual freedom in giving guest sermons at local churches. In the pulpit, he is a born preacher who can give living witness to the restitution of criminals, and at the same time challenge congregations about their relationship with money.

Lives Turned Around

ANTHONY PAPA, another graduate from the master's program, received executive clemency in 1996 from his drug-related conviction. A self-made artist while in Sing Sing, Papa is now employed as a patent and trademark legal assistant in midtown Manhattan. "It's a struggle out here," Papa says. "I work for corporate America, where it's all about money. Millions are spent on trivial issues, while people are starving in the world," says Papa, who admits the job serves to pay the bills.

In his spare time, Papa volunteers in prison activism programs and gives seminars in colleges and prisons. Every Friday, he can be found at Rockefeller Center demonstrating against the mandatory drug laws under which he himself served 12 years of a 15-years-to-life sentence for the possession of four-and-a-half ounces of drugs, handed to him by an undercover police officer. His release gives hope to those whose loved ones are among the thousands still behind bars under these costly and outdated regulations.

Another conversion case is Julio Medina, once a major New York drug wholesaler and dealer. During his third period of incarceration, he encountered the NYTS ministry program at Sing Sing. He has been out since October 1996, and now serves as a senior counselor at Reality House Inc., a nonprofit substance treatment facility in Harlem with 10 counselors and more than 300 clients. "This work feels good," Medina says. "I am very excited by watching people turn their lives around." He talks about the seminary program where the Bible came to life for him, explaining, "It made me face the question of what I was going to do about the community I had helped ruin."

Besides helping individual abusers one by one, Medina is also working on an ambitious project of developing a halfway house in Harlem for released prisoners, and he regularly goes back to Sing Sing to promote the concept to former inmate comrades.

Something good can definitely come out of Sing Sing. These transformed inmates, now struggling to do good in their home communities—are they the ones "about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote"? Those who will heal our communities and establish justice in our society? Through their own suffering and punishment, they have learned the perils of deteriorating communities, and they realize that they have the biggest stake in the rebuilding.

As they approach their task one step at a time, they may take inspiration from the "stone upon stone" concepts they learned from their stay on the site of the Sint-Sinck Indians. If so, a ministry program for those rejected by society may become a cornerstone for the rehabilitation of our inner cities. n

HANS HALLUNDBAEK, a former international management and marketing consultant, is a free-lance writer and adjunct professor of theology and ethics with New York Theological Seminary's program at Sing Sing Correctional Facility. He lives in Katonah, New York.

Check out these testimonies from former inmates and graduates of this unique program.

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