Arlette Zinck, associate professor at The King’s University in Edmonton, Alta., and a team of colleagues from King’s and two other universities in the city, volunteer every week to tutor inmates at the maximum-security Edmonton Institution. They’ve recently established the Postsecondary Prison Education Foundation, also known as The Prison Project, to help raise money to support inmates’ tuition expenses.
For the majority of the faculty from King’s, an institution supported by members of the Christian Reformed Church, the engagement in prison education began at Cuba’s notorious Guantanamo Bay detention camp with a young man named Omar Khadr.
Khadr is a Canadian citizen who was held for 10 years at Guantanamo and tried for war crimes he was accused of committing as a 15-year-old involved in a firefight with U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan.
A relationship later developed between Khadr and students and faculty at King’s. (See King's Linked to Guantanamo Trial.) Zinck was invited by the U.S. military to develop a curriculum for distance learning that Khadr could follow from his Cuban cell. Many King’s faculty became involved. After he was transferred to Corrections Canada federal prisons in Alberta until his release in May 2015, they continued tutoring him. Khadr was able to complete a high school diploma and went on to earn postsecondary credits from King’s. “Tutoring him,” said Zinck, who visited Khadr several times in person at Guantanamo Bay, was “a gesture of mercy and compassion to a young man who has had precious little of that.”
From the outset, King’s supported the engagement with Khadr. “They blessed the work,” said Zinck. “It stretched King’s, but they blessed it. It’s implicit that if we are to be Christ’s hands and feet, this work matters.”
“We were welcomed at the Edmonton Institution with Omar,” explained Zinck. “That was a wonderful thing. Within a month, we had a request to teach another student. Since then, we’ve taught eight men over the past three years.” Although they helped Khadr complete high school requirements, the group of educators now offers only post-secondary education. Potential students are identified by Corrections Canada and must have finished grade 12. Zinck interviews each potential student to explore his interest, then asks him to engage in a non-credit interdisciplinary course. The next course may be taken for credit through one of the universities. The professors teach one-on-one, wear personal alarms, and are closely monitored by guards. In spite of this, Zinck said, “We bring our presence and we engage with the prisoners like any other university student.”
“I had no interest in prisons,” Zinck said of her attitude at the outset. “I couldn’t have been more disengaged or uninterested. But the experience of going to the prison did something to me. I think perhaps the best way to talk about it is in terms of call. Now when I walk onto that prison campus—and it’s a fairly austere place—and for reasons that remain mysterious to me, I feel such a sense of joy. If there ever was a moment in my life when I have felt the presence of the Holy Spirit working through me, it’s been there.”
Zinck has dreams for The Prison Project to grow. Her vision is to take this experience and tap the shoulders of colleagues in other cities to which inmates get transferred so that their education can continue. She dreams of a community where there is more support for those who leave prison, and more people willing to engage.
“Here’s the heart of it for me and what I want Banner readers to know,” said Zinck. “That what we preach in our churches about reconciliation is life-giving, not only for those who have offended, but for the entire community.” She cited Frederick Buechner: “‘The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet.’ For this group of volunteers from King’s it has reconnected us to the central work of the church—to minister to one another. And the experience of doing that is such an incredible access point to renewal and reconciliation that I really do think it can transform the world. This work is critically important at this hour, not just for those who are incarcerated, but for the rest of us.”