In summer of 2007, when Deans Beach and Yardley decided to take a chance on piloting the Partnership for Religion and Education in Prisons (PREP) concept as presented by recent graduate Margaret Atkins (T ‘07), they had no idea what they were setting in motion. More than four years later, the thriving PREP program has trained 20 faculty/staff (5 from other schools), reached over one hundred students at Drew, and seventy students in two NJ correctional facilities in its eighth semester of facilitating theological courses in a combined learning community inside prison walls. Recently one student commented, “PREP is one of the best programs we have here at the Theo School.”
What the deans didn’t know is that they were giving life to much more than a program at the Theological School. Dr. Kesha Moore, assistant professor of sociology in the College of Liberal Arts, had been running a Drew chapter of the national Inside-Out program and bringing her Drew classes into the prisons when she and Margeret Atkins joined forces. Thanks to their partnership, PREP would become one of the crucial factors in uniting and inspiring Drew University to undertake the administration of the College Bound Consortium (CBC) degree program.
In 2010, in collaboration with Dr. Moore and the education department at Edna Mahan Correctional Facility, PREP co-founded the CBC pilot at EMCF. Atkins worked to channel funding into the larger vision that people inside could do more than achieve transferrable college credits; they could link those credits into a full college degree program. Having found a community college partner at Raritan Valley, PREP classes now help fuel the inside students’ progress toward their associate and eventual BA degree. As the CBC expands and grows with new director Dr. Bahiyyah Muhammad, Drew University has become a leader in a potential statewide initiative to provide higher education to people inside prisons.
This spring, PREP will continue to provide credited classes for the BA and have unique roles in theological reflection, redefining prison ministry, organizing for systemic change, and networking with churches and communities to provide meaningful support for returning citizens and former classmates. Above all, PREP will continue to make the space for encounters that change lives. “It is incredible to watch the rehumanization that happens when outside students and inside students interact as equals,” says Atkins. “They do not walk away the same people they were when they walked in.”