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Theology and Community Corrections in a Prison Setting
Theology and Community Corrections in a Prison Setting
This paper has been accepted for publication in a forthcoming issue of the Community Corrections Reporter. Please do not copy without permission.

Abstract: The Center for Social Research, Inc., reviews the Master in Professional Studies (MPS) degree program at Sing Sing prison in New York.* The MPS program is run, with no cost to the New York prison system, by the New York Theological Seminary and by community volunteers. The MPS degree is open to inmates who hold a college degree and references from chaplains and other inmates attesting to their religious commitment. Holders of the MPS degree become chaplain's assistants throughout the prison system, as they augment pastoral counseling, teaching and social services in the system for the remainder of their prison sentence. An exploratory study on the impact of this community-based religious education program on recidivism compared 54 of the MPS inmates to 402 non-MPS inmates who were released from prison in a somewhat similar time period. One year after release from prison none (0%) of the MPS ex-offenders were re-arrested compared to 30% of the non-MPS ex-offenders. Twenty eight months after release from prison 9% of the MPS ex-offenders were re-arrested compared to 37% of the non-MPS ex-offenders. Once they leave prison the MPS graduates continue to work in ministry related positions in the community. The MPS program, although it begins in a prison setting, represents many of the best features of community corrections and restorative community justice. The MPS program ought to be studied more and perhaps extended.
* The Center for Social Research is a non-profit company that assists organizations to develop, fund, and evaluate social programs in a more effective and fuller way.  The Center is located in the Washington DC area.

At the turn of the twentieth century Wilbert Webster White, believing the Bible to be the story of faith that shapes the identity of Christians, founded a seminary in New York city called the Biblical Seminary which placed the Bible at the center of its teaching curriculum (Webber, pps 9-10). The seminary was financially supported by laity and alumni who specialized in serving immigrant, poor, and missionary communities. In direct response to its constituency, which lacked the money and resources to build personal libraries and attend professional schools, the seminary created an alternative inductive, action-reflection methodology for its pedagogical base. The faculty at the school trained its graduates how to enter a poor community, and help the community to reflect upon and understand its own context, and then use the indigenous resources of the community to transform it into a better place.

In 1965 the seminary changed its name to New York Theological Seminary (NYTS) and expanded its urban identity to include an institutional commitment to civil rights. George Williams Webber became president in 1968 at a time when the school faced serious financial problems that threatened to close it.**  Dr. Webber reoriented the school to its founding values, and developed a "pilgrim" faculty that was committed to working, often for a small remuneration, with minority leaders on the peripheries of society. Webber attracted people like himself, mission-oriented, compassionate and often with elite educations, to provide high-level, practical, community-based theological education for urban leaders who could neither afford to leave the city nor pay for tuition at elite schools.

In 1981 Ed Muller, a chaplain at Greenhaven prison in New York and Karel Boersma, a pastor and volunteer at Greenhaven, came to Webber with a request that the seminary create a curricular extension program for incarcerated Christians and Muslims of strong faith who had a desire to provide pastoral care to their fellow inmates inside the prison. The two pastors knew from experience that the pastoral care needs of inmates were so overwhelming that outside and prison chaplains could not address them all. Webber agreed and collaborated with Rev. Dr. Earl Moore, an NYTS alumni who was deputy commissioner for ministerial and family services in the New York Department of Corrections, to create a theology and ministry program for inmates called the Master in Professional Studies (MPS) degree. The first degree program was held in 1983.

The MPS is entirely financed by NYTS who runs the program, with the help of community volunteers, at no cost to the New York Department of Correction. In 1986 the direct cost of the program to the seminary was $64,000 or $4,200 per student. Faced, however, with slim financial margins the seminary felt that it was unable to continue the program. To save the program Webber, who was retiring from his Presidency, agree to become the unpaid director of the MPS. Webber argued that the program symbolized everything the faculty and the seminary claimed to be and should not be threatened simply for financial reasons. Today the direct cost of the MPS is $70,000 or $4,667 per student. This is considerably less than the estimated cost of good treatment programs by Joan Petersilia - "Effective treatment programs cost at least $12,000 to $14,000 [per person] per year." (Petersilia, p. 490).
** Keith A. Russell succeeded Webber's presidency; M. William Howard, Jr. is the current president.

Selecting the MPS Students
The MPS program is now in its seventeenth year. The current selection of students is based on a highly competitive application and reference process. The MPS is open to 15 inmates each year who hold a college degree and references from chaplains and other inmates attesting to their religious commitment. Webber receives about 75 applications from inmates throughout the New York prison system each year. To help him select 15 inmates who both read and write well, and show a deep willingness to turn their lives around, Webber asks the inmate alumni on the admission's committee to recommend the most suitable candidates. Inmate knowledge of other inmates is critical to the selection process because incarcerated alumni do not want the inside reputation of the program downgraded by poorly functioning students. Too many admissions "mistakes" would jeopardize the program's viability inside the prison.

Once accepted, the inmate is transferred to Sing Sing prison where the MPS takes place over a twelve month period. Upon receiving their graduate degree the inmates return to prisons throughout the system where they serve the remainder of their prison sentence as assistants to the prison chaplains. In their professional ministerial role they augment the pastoral counseling, teaching and social services provided by other ministers in the prison system.

The MPS Curriculum
The teaching faculty of 5 professors for the MPS is drawn from the NYTS faculty, and their work is held to the same academic standards as the rest of the NYTS curriculum. The faculty treat the Sing-Sing classroom the same as all NYTS classrooms. Classes take place one day a week in the prison. The remainder of the week is given over to study, reflection, and homework. In addition to the MPS faculty a team of highly educated and community minded volunteers from the Rye Presbyterian Church in New York hold a social gathering with the students every week in the evening after classes. To graduate MPS students must simultaneously complete a year of field work and a year of pastoral counseling. Students must meet standard professional requirements for their field work and counseling. In addition to course work and counseling, the students write an integration paper at the end of the year. The NYTS action-reflection model requires a social learning process that uses an inductive methodology (Pazmino, p41). This kind of learning enables students to deconstruct the social systems that facilitate crime and incarceration.

Understanding one's life circumstance from the dual perspective of personal and social morality empowers the student with skills to transform both the self and society. Ethics, church history, theology, and pastoral counseling course work engages and revolves around the sacred texts that shape the identity of one's religious community, typically the Bible and the Koran. Students are taught a variety of hermeneutical tools to exegete and interpret scripture and daily life. Racism, sexism, and classism are societal oppressions that are routinely addressed. Regardless of their faith affiliation, Christian, Muslim and Jewish students reflect upon each other's sacred texts and religious experiences. Students learn how to talk across differences and how to transform a moment of frustration and conflict into a moment of constructive learning.
When asked how he develops curriculum, Webber replied:
We give them what they need to know. What you need to know is how to question. Yes, they need to know a little Luther and Calvin, but in this moment they really need to know "how my faith transforms me" today. So, we have a whole semester of contemporary religion in the United States. We are going to cover pentecostalism, Islam, African-American churches and Hispanic denominations.
Webber argues that key to the classroom is the table the students sit around: "They sit and talk like they have never talked before." Webber is also aware that the NYTS program is radically different from other prison programs, for example the MPS teaches sexual ethics. In the NYTS classroom students are given a context and a safe place to ask questions they never asked before. The conversations are exhausting and overwhelming, students get tired, but they don't want to leave at the end of the day.

Webber came to realize that he needed to spend one whole day each week at Sing Sing to provide continuity between classes and reflection time. In that space, he comes to personally know his students, their stories and their prison contexts. Outside of the direct contact, Webber spends several days a month raising money for books and faculty travel costs. When asked how he has managed to fund this program for over a decade, Webber replies, "It is a very good story. When I tell people how these guys' lives are changed, people give. The media love our story and they tell it well too." The New York Times, the New Yorker and other publications have all written about the MPS program (Balestier; Green; Kunen; Pazmino; Treaster; Webber).

Webber credits significant social skill attainment to the interaction students have with the MPS faculty and volunteers. Of note is the Rye Presbyterian Church's multiple year commitment to the program. Over time, volunteers accrue learning and the capacity to assist the inmates with self-assessment, relationship building and social skills. The Department of Correction transfers MPS graduates from Sing Sing to other prisons where they are assigned to chaplain's offices and infirmaries. In addition, their counseling skills are sought by pre-release programs. Other inmates request special programs, e.g., Bible study or theological reflection on social issues such as family and love relationships. Alumni then, are able to meet the ministerial needs and goals that precipitated the program.

The MPS Program and Recidivism
Clearly, it is of great benefit to the prison system and to the prison chaplains to have professionally trained men ministering to their fellow inmates in the prison system. But how do the MPS inmates fare once they are released from prison? Does the MPS help them to turn their lives around, live meaningful lives, and contribute to society without engaging in further criminal activity? To seek a preliminary answer to these questions we conducted an exploratory study of the impact of the MPS program on the recidivism of the men who had participated in the program.

We sent the identification numbers of 138 people who participated in the MPS program to the Division of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS), in the New York Department of Correction. The DCJS then gave us re-arrest data as of April 30, 1994 on the 54 MPS people who had served their time and been released from prison.⊃1; We compared the re-arrest rates for these 54 cases to the re-arrest rates of a comparison group of 402 inmates who did not participate in the MPS program. We used these 402 New York inmates for our comparison group because we were already collected recidivism data on them for a separate study of the impact of in-prison religious programming on recidivism (O'Connor et al.).⊃2; These 402 men had been released from prison between January 1, 1992 and April 30, 1993, and the MPS group had been released between 1983 and 1994. Because our two groups were released over different time periods we controlled for the length of time that each person was released.

First of all we looked at just the MPS group. We found that 28% (15) of the MPS group had been re-arrested during a maximum ten year follow-up period. The majority of those re-arrests (10) occurred after the individuals had been out of prison for more than three years. During the first year of release none of the MPS people were re-arrested. Among the 15 re-arrests, nine (60%) were for misdemeanors and six (40%) were for felonies.

Second we compared the MPS group to the non-MPS group. To do this we had to limit our analysis to the first 28 months of release from prison. We did this because the non-MPS group were on the street for a much shorter time, and only had a maximum of 28 months in which they could be re-arrested.⊃3; This drastically changes the proportion of MPS inmates who were re-arrested, since so many of the MPS re-arrests came after three years. In the first 28 months of release only 9% (5) of the MPS group were re-arrested, compared to 37% of the non-MPS group, a significant difference at the p < .05 standard.

Logistic regression analysis of the 28-month data, while controlling for the varying amounts of follow-up time (months free), revealed a pattern of re-arrest that differed significantly for the MPS and non-MPS groups. Table 1 displays the logistic regression results. The non-MPS people were much more likely to be re-arrested in the early months out, while MPS people were more likely to be re-arrested in the latter part of the 28-month window of opportunity. In fact, no re-arrests of MPS individuals occurred until the 12th month after release. By way of comparison, 80% of the non-MPS re-arrests were within the first 12 months of release.

Table 1. Logistic regression analysis of re-arrest by program, controlling for months free, limited to the first 28 months out of prison.

Variable B S.E. df Sig. Exp(B)
Months free
Program by months free
There are very few studies on the impact of prison religious programs on the recidivism of adults (Gartner et al.). However, a number of recent studies with adult inmates have found that a high level of in-prison religious involvement is associated with healthy adjustment to prison life among inmates and low recidivism among ex-offenders released from prison (Clear and Myhre; O'Connor; O'Connor et al.; Young et al.). The results of the exploratory study of the MPS program are consistent with this literature.

Our finding of very low rates of recidivism during the first 28 months of release for the MPS group raises some interesting questions. Is there something about the Masters program that helps individuals to avoid re-arrest, at least in the early years out of prison? Or was it just that the MPS graduates were so different to the non-MPS graduates in ways that explain their low rate of re-arrest? For example, the two groups could have differed on factors like education and previous criminal history. Unfortunately we can not compare the two groups on these and other factors because we do not currently have enough information. NYTS, however, has completed a survey of all of its graduates to collect more information on them and is working to raise funds for a more detailed comparison study of MPS and non-MPS ex-offenders that would control for differences between the two groups.

The impact on recidivism suggested by our study would be a welcome unintentional by-product of the MPS program. Bill Webber feels that the key to decreasing recidivism is facilitating the inmates' return to the job market and to family relationships. The MPS program teaches professional job skills. The students obtain experience that is resume quality and there is a market for their knowledge. Preliminary findings from the NYTS survey show that most of its graduates have found work upon their release that is related to their MPS training. Webber also underscores the importance of personal love relationships in stabilizing the re-entry process. The hours of table talk in the program helps students articulate anger and desire in effective ways. It also teaches them how to engage and involve their peers in appropriate conversation.

From our point of view the MPS program, although it takes place in a prison setting, represents the best features of "community corrections" and restorative community justice (Clear; Clear). The MPS belongs to and is run by the New York community for its own people in partnership with the New York Department of Corrections. The MPS is embedded in the history and values of various religious traditions like Christianity, Islam, and Judaism and uses these resources to help transform a present day situation of suffering and oppression. The MPS is victim-sensitive in so far as it teaches empathy for victims and stresses the responsibilities of offenders. The MPS aims to heal the wounds of crime rather than merely punish the convicted. Finally, the MPS is not atomistically split off from the social and ecological aspects of offender's lives, for its whole pedagogy is concerned with understanding and trans forming the society and ecology of crime. Despite the fact that the MPS program takes place in Sing Sing prison the core of the program is to be found in the community and not so much in the Department of Corrections.

In our view the community does community corrections best, provided that they understand corrections and crime. We trust that our description of the MPS program has shown that the people who run the MPS program do indeed understand crime and corrections. Furthermore they are able to access and bring important community resources to bare to the issues of crime and corrections. We need to do more research on the impact of the MPS program, both on recidivism, and on how its graduates contribute to society upon their release. The field of community corrections can learn a great deal from a close study of the MPS program, and such study could in turn help the MPS become even more effective. We hope that the community will continue to find a way to pay for, and even extend, the MPS program.
⊃1; 58 of the 138 MPS group had been released but we had to drop four of these cases due to data inconsistencies.
⊃2; Half of our comparison group of non-MPS ex-offenders had taken part in regular in-prison religious programs like Bible Studies and Worship services.
⊃3;In both the MPS and non-MPS groups some ex-offenders had the full 28 month time frame available for follow-up, while others had less.

Authors: Thomas P. O'Connor, Victoria L. Erickson, Patricia Ryan, and Crystal Parikh.

Mailing Address: Center for Social Research, Inc. 10608 S. Dunmoor Dr., Silver Spring, MD 20901.

Author's note: Thomas P. O'Connor, Solicitor, M.S., is founder and president of the Center for Social Research, Inc., an interdisciplinary non-profit company that assists organizations to fund, develop, and evaluate social programs more effectively. Tom is an attorney from Ireland and has degrees in philosophy, theology, and counseling. Tom is working on a Ph.D. at Catholic University of America on religion and culture in the American penal system.

Victoria L. Erickson, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of the Sociology of Religion and University Chaplain at Drew University. She has taught in the Master in Professional Studies program at Sing Sing prison and is Associated faculty at New York Theological Seminary. Victoria has published in the area of social and feminist theory.

Patricia Ryan, M.S.W., M.A., is a research analyst and a licensed social worker with a private therapy practice. Patricia has many years of experience in social work and completed both her Master in social work and Master in sociology at Catholic University of America.

Crystal Parikh, M.A., is a writer and research assistant at the Center for Social Research, Inc. Crystal is working on a Ph.D. in English at the University of Maryland. Crystal's particular area of research is ethnic studies and feminist theory.

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hat promise to yield cumulative and progressive results over time.

This article was originally published in Community Corrections Report, © 1997 Civic Research Institute, Inc., 4478 U.S. Route 27, Kingston, NJ 08528, and is reprinted here with express permission. For subscription information, write Civic Research Institute, 4490 U.S. Route 27, P.O.Box 585, Kingston, NJ 08528 or call 609-683-4450.