A New Preferential Option

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."

In the second year of the program, 35 new students are in class five days a week and serious progress is being made. Student Michael Fisnar says, "Prior to entering the program my faith was slipping away. However, now I have come to realize that what is really important is the concept of a loving God, who cares about all of us and gives us a way of life to strive for."

THE PRISON EXPERIENCE is a unique one and requires a distinct theological stance. As expressed by Rev. Dr. T. Richard Snyder, dean and professor of theology and ethics at NYTS, "If ever there was a modern-day parallel to Ezekiel's Valley of Dry Bones, it is Sing Sing prison." The seminary is providing the resurrection of dry bones through its focus on "prison theology." A book with that title, written by a uniquely gifted graduate from the Sing Sing program, Leslie Rodgers, has been accepted for publication by Orbis Books.

The strong NYTS commitment to prison work is an extension of the seminary's focus on inner-city ministry in the five boroughs of New York. Seventy-five percent of the inmates in Sing Sing come from these five boroughs. The seminary recognizes the inmates are not primarily prisoners, but potential-filled human beings from its own constituency.

By providing theological and ministerial training to these men while incarcerated, they become better equipped for a successful re-entry into society upon release. Additionally they are motivated for rebuilding inner-city neighborhoods from the devastation of poverty, crime, and drug infestation. While the return to incarceration is about 50 percent for the prison population at large, the master's program at Sing Sing can boast of a recidivism of only 5 percent, so the taxpayer benefits too.

After graduating from the ministry programs, alumni continue in the liberating spirit by building communities with several outside churches. This provides a much needed after-care activity and facilitates bridge-building back to society.

Theological training in prison is bearing fruit in Sing Sing. It also could do so in the numerous other prisons in this country. All that is needed is an attitude of preferential option for the prisoner. Jesus on the cross demonstrated such an option to his fellow prisoner: "... today you will be with me in paradise" (Luke 23:43).

Hans Hallundbaek, a "recovering businessman" with a master's from Maryknoll School of Theology (peace and justice), was a volunteer co-teacher of theology and ethics in the Sing Sing certificate program when this article appeared. The master's degree program at Sing Sing continues at New York Theological Seminary; Hallundbaek wrote about it again in a 2006 article in Prism magazine.

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