Christian Higher Ed Courses in Prisons Continue, Adapt Amid COVID-19

Christian Higher Ed Courses in Prisons Continue
Female inmates at the Chillicothe Correctional Center in northern Missouri take part in courses offered by Rockhurst University in 2018.
Photo courtesy of Rockhurst University

The Banner has a subscription with the Associated Press to republish religion and faith content from AP, RNS, and The Conversation. This story from Religion News Service, published May 13, 2021, has been edited for length. You can read the full story here. Two paragraphs about Calvin University’s Prison Initiative, running since 2015, have been added.


Despite the elimination of most prison visitations for many months of the COVID-19 pandemic, some religious higher education institutions that offer programming within correctional facilities have found ways to stay connected with prisoners.

At North Park Theological Seminary, an evangelical school in Chicago, faculty opted for pen-and-paper classwork to continue courses for inmates.

At Rockhurst University, a Catholic institution in Missouri, the president tried new technology that enabled him to co-teach a “Human Geography” virtual course with prisoners at the Chillicothe Correctional Center.

Faculty of New Orleans Theological Seminary’s Leavell College, a Southern Baptist school, have taught socially distanced students at the Louisiana Penitentiary in Angola, standing some 20 feet away from the closest learner.

And Calvin University, the Grand Rapids, Mich., school founded by the Christian Reformed Church, used a hybrid approach to continue delivering lessons at Ionia, Mich., Handlon Correctional Facility through its Calvin Prison Initiative. The school conferred its first bachelor degrees through the program at a commencement ceremony May 22, 2021.

North Park, which is affiliated with the Evangelical Covenant Church, began piloting courses inside the all-male Stateville Correctional Center, a maximum security prison outside Chicago, about five years ago, according to Michelle Clifton-Soderstrom, director of its School of Restorative Arts.

Within three years, it had launched a program offering a master’s degree in Christian ministry and restorative arts, including courses in theology, history, and pastoral care alongside race relations, healing from personal trauma, and mobilizing for justice, Clifton-Soderstrom said. Its first cohort, set to graduate in 2022, includes about 38 students both inside and outside the prison. 

Inside, students have largely been quarantined in their cells for months on end, said Vickie Reddy, assistant director of North Park’s School of Restorative Arts. They haven’t seen each other, not to mention outside students or instructors from North Park.

“It's only just started to open up,” she said in mid-April.

Still, classes have continued at Stateville, with Reddy compiling individual packets of materials from instructors and dropping them off at the prison each week. She then returns to pick up students’ completed assignments, scan them, and send them back to instructors.

North Park has organized the students into small groups, too, helping them stay connected with each other inside the prison and with those outside by exchanging correspondence. Within the last three weeks, she said, students and instructors finally have been able to meet over Zoom, nine students at a time from the same housing units, all distanced and masked. Reddy called it a "game changer"—one small step to reopening.

At Rockhurst University, a Jesuit school in Kansas City, president Thomas Curran said he was determined to keep its college-credit courses going at Chillicothe Correctional Center without using the correspondence course option.

After consulting with the school’s information technology department, Rockhurst revamped its courses for the incarcerated students Curran calls “companions.” Using eye-ball cameras, Zoom and a big-screen television, he taught them about the interaction of human beings with their environment.

Eighteen students, six feet apart and masked, watched him on the screen placed in a large room in the prison, a two-hour trip from the university. In the past, faculty usually drove to the prison to teach in person.

“Until we could come together, physically, what are the ways to remind us of the need for that solidarity. What are the ways to link us?” he asked. “And that's how I used technology to do that. So it's a kind of a bridge to where we need to return.”

Curran said he hopes the “breakthrough” in keeping the course going can lead to a hybrid approach to learning with classes in person and via Zoom for students at Chillicothe and Rockhurst. So far, the inmates—along with a separate group of correctional officers—have completed 31 college credits toward an associate’s degree.

Kimberly Herring, deputy warden of operations at the prison in northern Missouri, said the program generally helps build self-worth but was especially beneficial for the offenders amid the isolation that accompanied COVID-19.

In a handwritten note to Religion News Service, student Vermonn Roberts spoke of the lessons she was still able to learn through the course, which focused on the relationships between humans, other organisms, and the environment.

“Human geography helps to diminish the danger of ignorance by forcing us to look beyond ourselves,” she wrote. “To look through a wider scope and try to appreciate the differences of others through conversation.”

Across the United States, there are roughly 300 higher education programs in prisons, both religious and nonreligious, according to Lois Davis, a senior policy researcher at the nonprofit Rand Corp.

Each one has grappled this past year with whether to allow outside instructors into prison facilities to hold classes as states have taken action to slow the spread of COVID-19, Davis said in an email to RNS. Some facilities ceased or substantially cut back on programming. Some educational programs suspended classes until they can be held again in person, while others found ways to adapt, such as videoconferencing.

RELATED: For Prison Congregations Separated by COVID-19, Pastor Says ‘Pray and Wait on the Lord’ (April 24, 2020)

One study by Rand found that incarcerated people who participated in those kinds of educational programs had 43% lower odds of recidivating than those who did not.

“The Calvin Prison Initiative (CPI) has been able to continue instruction throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, even while Handlon prison remains closed to visitors and volunteers,” CPI operations manager Kary Bosma told The Banner. The school employed a combination of  “asynchronous communication through a digital file sharing system” brought to the prison three times per week and real-time teaching. “CPI has also received permission to use a video conferencing technology, which allows for live engagement between CPI students, faculty, and staff,” Bosma said, allowing “for some live virtual classroom instruction, though social distancing limits on the number of students in a classroom limit the ability to teach an entire cohort at one time.”

Council for Christian Colleges & Universities president Shirley V. Hoogstra points to the positive effect such educational programs have on prisoners, their families and their communities, as well as Jesus’ words in Matthew 25: “I was in prison and you came to visit me.”

“An education recognizes the God-given dignity of all individuals. It provides a fresh start. And it provides the confidence to face a new future and look candidly at the past,” Hoogstra said in a written statement marking April as Second Chance Month.

Rick Sharkey, senior chaplain at the maximum security prison in Angola and director of the New Orleans seminary’s extension center on the prison grounds, said classes were canceled in March 2020 and started again in November, with the next semester beginning in January. Since the reopening, a masked professor has visited weekly, standing in an auditorium and teaching students—also wearing masks—in classes on subjects including church history, English composition, and introduction to ministry.

The program, which dates to 1995 and has 368 graduates, currently includes 68 undergraduates and 45 graduate students.

Sharkey said that even when Angola inmates couldn’t be taught due to the pandemic, there were already trained ministers among them. More than 200 inmates—mostly taught through the seminary’s program—are leaders of dozens of churches among the prisoner population of about 5,100.

“The spiritual needs of the men were still being met by the inmate ministers that were all throughout the prison,” he said. “That's exactly what the purpose of the school is all about: preparing men for ministry and strengthening the churches that are inside here.”

By Emily McFarlan Miller and Adelle M. Banks for Religion News Service

Additional reporting by Alissa Vernon, Banner news editor

Ⓒ 2021 Religion News Service

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