Inspired by liberation theology's "preferential option for the poor," a new theology is taking shape from within our ever-growing prison population: prison theology.
The seedbed was started almost 16 years ago, when Dr. George W. Webber, professor of urban ministry at New York Theological Seminary (NYTS) in New York City, initiated a theological program in Sing Sing prison. It was an instant success and the seminary has since graduated about 15 students each year from the master's of professional studies program.
This seedbed recently came into full growth because of a crisis. With the stroke of a pen, the state governor's office in early 1995 eliminated all budgets for college-level prison education. Graduates from the master's program recognized the plight of their fellow inmates, who yearned for education but now had nowhere to go. In the best tradition of liberation theology, they started a one-year, 30-credit Certificate in Ministry Program. The program was financed by a few sympathetic churches, taught primarily by qualified inmates themselves, and accredited by NYTS. In a broad ecumenical tradition, it includes biblical studies, world religions, theology and ethics, the history of Christianity, and counseling.
At a jubilant celebration with family and friends, the first 33 students graduated from the program last June. Amidst the joy of accomplishment, somber words of reflection were spoken. Said one new graduate, Nigel Lawrence, "Faced with double-bunking, lack of rehabilitative programs, the threat of elimination of prisoners' legal services, and the denial of human rights, we found our moment of truth in the context of the certificate program." He continued on a determined, hopeful note, "It is our intention to bring out our best by continuing to persevere and overcome amidst the evil around us."