I often call to mind Jesus’ “Parable of the Farmer Scattering Seed” when I think about teaching theology as a professor at The University of Scranton. To me, the story urges us to not grow discouraged in scattering as many seeds of insight, passion and scholarship as we can among students, knowing that not all seeds will take root.
Yet in the past few years since starting and running Scranton’s Prison Education Program, offered at the State Correctional Institution in Dallas, PA, I’ve found that prison is one of the most abundantly fertile grounds in education. The several professors who have taught there so far, including myself, say it evokes renewed passion for education. We find it the highlight of our week – indeed, for many, of our careers. Yet another has said, “This has renewed not only my career, but my life, giving me new meaning.”
We have found students there to be among the most avid and engaged students we have taught. They eagerly look forward to assignments and enthusiastically engage in discussions. Students there all nodded in agreement when one described incarceration as “living in an information desert,” a dehumanizing drain on the mind and soul. Often seeing education’s benefits with a greater clarity than our more privileged students might, they genuinely want to learn, viewing the classes as a godsend. Our students at Dallas are an inspiration to teach and it is a wondrous privilege to count them among our students at Scranton.
Prison Education Initiative
After a few years of logistical preparations, Scranton’s Prison Education Program began in Fall 2021. Through courses taught onsite at Dallas by full-time University professors, students can earn an associate of arts degree in liberal studies in just over two years. Courses include writing, math, literature, physics, history, theology, psychology, and more.
Scranton now has twenty-seven students enrolled in the program, with the first cohort of eleven students set to graduate in December 2023. The students have done exceptionally well, earning Dean’s List status at a rate higher than our regular on-campus students in classes of the same stature and rigor. I advise professors teaching at Dallas – nine throughout a year – to employ the same material, standards, passion and expectations they do on campus.
For the “Introduction to Christian Theology” course I recently offered there, I used the same slides and syllabus as I do on campus. However, I allowed more time for discussion; for a key feature of Dallas students is not so much that they are incarcerated as that they are adults – who have plenty of life experience and interest in discussion.
Wide Diversity of Opinion in Engaged Classroom Discussions
While my course’s rigor and content was largely the same, the experience for me was a unique, refining fire, keeping me on my scholarly toes. I run a provocative course, where we discuss topics like Christ’s enemy-love in contrast with patriotic militarism and the myth of redemptive violence (this was a hard sell); Christ’s crucifixion as compared with lynching (triggering many culture war topics on racism); and the ecological crisis and Laudato Si’, and other political implications of theology. While a certain shy, mild homogeneity can characterize the average campus classroom discussion of these topics, in prison, the diversity of beliefs and convictions is intensely elevated. In the same room, one finds emphatic atheists, devout Muslims, members of the Nation of Islam, Protestants, Catholics, “Odinists,” and others. Some rage against the carceral machine while others, surprising to me, defend conventional “law and order” motifs one might find in right-wing discourse.
But my way through this was not to water everything down or cater to all of the different parties. Instead, I had to drive forward with honest candor, being myself, but more keenly aware of my own blind-spots and biases.
With the parable of the sower again in mind, it worked quite well, perhaps at the modest success rate of sowing seeds on rich soil. While the discussion of racism and theology proved among the most turbulent parts of the semester, I still found it all an enlivening joy and blessing to uniquely interrogate topics I have spent decades of my life studying and teaching.
A Vibrant Mission-Positive Experience
More than a dozen University faculty have now taught in the program, and everyone has found the experience to be inspiring. “It is exhausting and exhilarating at the same time,” said Christie Karpiak, Ph.D., professor of psychology, of the three courses she has taught at Dallas. “The students there are fully formed adults with varied life experiences and vastly different viewpoints. The experience has been fantastic.”
“Teaching in this program fills your mind and fills your heart,” said Declan Mulhall, Ph.D., professor of physics and engineering. “I am humbled by how genuinely appreciative these students are. They treated me warmly. They brought me into their lives and trusted me. It is truly a moving experience.”
Dr. Mulhall confirmed the teaching environment is vigorous and vibrant. “It makes you a better teacher. The stakes are high for them. They want to learn. Through this program, you are making a difference in the lives of people. It is really the bare minimum we can do to help them.”
The payoff of the Prison Education Program has been enormous for the University in terms of the students and faculty growth. In light of the Society of Jesus’ Universal Apostolic Preferences, it is a mission-positive experience, extending education to underserved populations, to those who want and need it most, while also enlivening professors’ passion for teaching. Indeed, I see why some schools brand these programs as partially about “faculty enrichment.”
Prison Education Programs Poised for Growth
In the coming months, changes in Pell grants will go into effect that will extend access to education programs for inmates. I would encourage colleges considering starting prison education initiatives to connect with those experienced in running programs. A new Jesuit consortium, the Jesuit Prison Education Network (JPEN), has been building up through the leadership of Rev. Thomas B. Curran, S.J., and is worth plugging into. There are unique complexities involved in setting up and offering these programs, such as security logistics and interfacing with a Department of Corrections. Speaking to others with experience has certainly helped me to anticipate, overcome and at least endure the many challenges one encounters, in farming such rich soil.
By Christopher Haw, Ph.D., Director of the Prison Education Program and Assistant Professor of Theology and Religious Studies, The University of Scranton