Celebrating PREP’s Margaret Atkins

PREP (Partnership for Religion and Education in Prisons) is consistently lauded by participants as a life changing experience that makes theological education at Drew live up to its promises.  Coordinated for its first five years by MTS alum Margaret Atkins (T’07), PREP continues to teach transformation this fall with two courses: Music of the World Religions (PSTH 563) with former dean Anne Yardley, and Moral Thoughts of Black Intellectuals (RLSC 775) with professor Traci West. This summer, Atkins left PREP to direct a new consortium for prison education based at Rutgers. I met with Margaret on a break from packing up her Drew office.

Margaret AtkinsAs you finish up the details of your move, what is on your heart and mind about PREP? What will you be taking with you?

Margaret Q. Atkins: The biggest thing I take with me is the gift of seeing lived out the value of partnership. PREP is built on the premise of partnership. It’s very real, particularly when dealing with folks so disenfranchised from society. It means living out what we say we’re about: understanding ministry with and among, not to and for. From the beginning the ideas and design were always partnered with people inside. Former students are co-trainers for our students, and cohorts inside teach faculty how to teach in prison. That ongoing sense of ownership means transformation with those inside. The power of that alone is what I take with me going forward. What true partnership really means, and what God can do as a result.  We are equally teachers and equally learners; according to Paulo Freire, everybody has something to learn and everybody has something to teach. I watch it lived out because it has to be that way.

The other gift I take with me is the sense of what an incredible faculty Drew Theological School has. We trained nearly 20 faculty and staff, plus another 5 or 6 from other theological schools. I am amazed at the commitment the faculty has shown; how quickly they understood and enhanced and walked it out, and created around and with and through it.

Outside students, also, never ceased to amaze me, how quickly they get it. They have to put down all their ministry stuff and just be students and be open to being ministered to. Those transformations are my favorites, to watch someone walk into a classroom one way and walk out another. Changed forever. What a gift, to witness and facilitate that level of transformation, to be an agent of the transformation that I believe we are all called to, based on our belief in the ultimate transformers, Jesus and God.All these things I take with me, except my faculty.

What is your hope for the future of PREP?

MQA: That people would not leave seminary without having gone to class in prison. Many students have said this should be a requirement. The steering committee has begun to ask how it could be a requirement that feels good and attracts those who really desire it. The PREP model is growing regionally, and other theo schools are recognizing its value. PREP needs to be institutionalized at Drew; this is part of who we are theologically, but also who we are university wide.

How did you get started in this work?

Harmon Wray
Restorative Justice Mentor Harmon Wray

MQA: When I was an MTS student at Drew, I happened to get connected to someone who was talking about criminal justice and theology. This was Harmon Wray at Vanderbilt, the leading thinker/theologian working in the context of criminal justice, and his professional partner, Janet Wolf. They had quickly realized that some of the best theology was going on behind the walls. I got on an airplane and said, “How can I be a part of what you are doing?” I did a reading course and a practicum looking at all the models of theological classes happening in prisons, and I was hooked. As I was graduating with the MTS I made a proposal to Drew that became PREP.  Harmon taught a January term class at Drew in 2007. He suddenly died, before I was ready, but not until after Drew had said yes to my proposal. He is the shoulders I stand on. Both Harmon and Janet were blown away by Drew’s level of partnership in terms of granting college credit, and that was through the work of CLA professor Kesha Moore.Then Kesha and I started to ask, “What if the women were not just taking transferrable college credits? What if we tried to collect all of the college credits they were earning inside and link them into a program?” So PREP and Inside-Out worked together to create the College Bound Consortium (CBC), and now CBC has worked to created an even larger picture, soon to go under a new name.

Margaret will be the director of the new consortium, overseeing the entire system being built. There are now 8 higher ed institutions and 4 different state agencies at the table. In 1994 all federal programs were cut, and states followed suit. Since then, whatever has happened with education in the prison system has been privately funded. NJ is the first state of the union to propose a statewide consortium.

What is in store for you at your new job?

MQA: The new work that I am doing out of Rutgers is about creating a system of higher education in prisons and on parole–we are looking to connect every state correctional facility with a 2-year and 4-year college that will start inside and follow people home as they become returning students with a new identity and a way of actualizing the gifts and purpose God planted in them.  It is practical, lived-out redemptive theology at its best.

Lydia York, TheoSpirit Co-Editor