Drew University is a New Jersey-based theological school that nurtures Christian partnerships and has become active in prisons. Recalling PEW research that states “1 in every 100 persons in the USA is incarcerated,” the founders of the program believe that incarcerated individuals are members of our communities and that it is an issue that must be embraced whole-heartedly. To that end, Drew launched the Partnership for Religion and Education in Prisons (PREP) to work with prison populations and also provide pastoral and teaching experience for its theological students.
PREP is based on a prison education model begun in Nashville, Tennessee in 2002, but also incorporates elements of other well-known prison programs in its design. According to Drew University, the initiative, PREP “creates opportunities for a joint theological learning environment between theological students and students within State correctional facilities.” The foundation of the program rests upon meaningful academic dialogue fostered by religious overtones. Practicing ministers engage a diverse population of students; the aim of the program is to help reduce recidivism as well as to help people transform their lives, to find purpose, and to reshape their experience into a brighter path–one leading away from prison and the behaviors that led them there.
Before incarcerated individuals can enroll in PREP’s pilot programs, they must participate in an interview where they are formally introduced to the program and may decide if they are interested in taking PREP coursework. Currently PREP is available at Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for women in Clinton, New Jersey and Northern State Prison for men in Newark, New Jersey. All courses at both facilities are held on Monday afternoons and evenings. Courses are designed and presented by Drew faculty.
Courses are theology based. At this point in time, there is no specific degree outline, but as these programs are being piloted through the NJDOC and Drew University, there is considerable growth possible. For now, inside students, as prisoners are called, can study and take coursework for academic stimulus and, of course, credit for having taken these Drew-accredited classes. Some of the current course titles include: “Their Eyes Were Watching God: Women’s Expressions of Religion, Gender, and Race in Works of Fiction,” “Theology of Redemption,” “Search for the Good Community,” and “Biblical Studies – Mary Magdalene.” Faculty work to engage students in the topics with open and meaningful discourse that allows them to gain insight about the subject matter as well as to develop a new perspective on their own lives and their place within their respective communities.
The Benefits of PREP
Participating students have found the experience of these theological courses to be uplifting. Moreover, many inmates have found the class time to be a highlight of their incarceration period. As the program is relatively new and still in its early phases, there is potential for other New Jersey prisons to participate and more course offerings to be added. As with other prison-based programs, funding is always an obstacle. However, this program has university support and the university also solicits the help of volunteers to make PREP a success.