Theological Education in Prisons: The Incarceration Crisis and the Church

November 16, 17, 18, and 19 | A Series of Four Webinars

Prison bars event

Despite increasing public attention to our current mass incarceration crisis, roughly 2.3 million individuals are currently incarcerated in jails, prisons, and immigration detention centers in the United States. The call for the church to care for those in prison is clear, but discerning the best course of action to fulfill this call is challenging.

Using frameworks of reform or frameworks of abolition, many civic organizations, educational institutions, and religious congregations have pursued varied responses to the crisis. Churches and church members may work to raise awareness, get involved in political organizing, or volunteer to visit or correspond with those in prison. There is also a growing movement in the church and its institutions to offer theological education in prisons as a response to this crisis.

Originally planned as a one-day conference on the seminary campus, Theological Education in Prisons: The Incarceration Crisis and the Church, is now being offered as a series of four online webinars. Presenters were selected through a call for papers process. Together, we will seek to identify and learn from current approaches to theological education in prisons to strengthen the church’s ministry with and pursuit of justice for those in prison.

I. Doing Theology in Prison: Academic Theology as Liberation and Resistance

Monday, November 16, 3–4:15 p.m. EST
Presenter: Jennifer McBride

This presentation examines the role academic theology programs in jails and prisons may play in the work of resisting the carceral system. Certificate and degree programs in theological studies, often sponsored by seminaries and divinity schools, are part of a larger national movement that sees higher education in prison as a vital resource in the work of advocacy and resistance. The presentation will briefly examine the role Christian education has played historically and today to bolster the prison and, in contrast, will outline four characteristics of programs that are in the service of liberation. While doing so, the presentation will lift up the voices of incarcerated students, sharing the theological insights of women matriculating through an academic theology certificate program in Georgia, which served as a model for a similar program created at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago.

People jennifer mcbride

Jennifer McBride is associate dean and assistant professor at McCormick Theological Seminary. McBride previously held the Board of Regents Endowed Chair in Ethics at Wartburg College in Iowa and was a postdoctoral fellow in the Initiative in Religious Practices and Practical Theology at Emory University. At Emory, she served as program director for the Atlanta Theological Association’s Certificate in Theological Studies at Metro State Prison for Women (2009-2011). She founded a similar program through McCormick at Cook County Department of Corrections and serves as the academic representative of McCormick’s Solidarity Building Initiative. She is a graduate of University of Virginia (PhD) and author of Radical Discipleship: A Liturgical Politics of the Gospel (Fortress Press, 2017). Her most recent essays include “Bonhoeffer’s Critique of Morality: A Theological Resource for Dismantling Mass Incarceration” in Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Theology, and Political Resistance (2020). In addition to scholarly journals and anthologies, her work has appeared in popular publications like The Christian Century and CNN.com and has been featured in The New York Times.

II. A Model for Institutional Leadership as Servants of Solidarity: Liberative Carceral Education

Tuesday, November 17, 3–4:15 p.m. EST
Presenter: Jia Johnson

The research and praxis presented in this presentation seeks to answer the question: How might seminaries in the service of liberation theologies create programs of carceral education that intentionally mitigate the collateral consequences of incarceration? The presenter will offer a model for institutional leadership as servants of solidarity. This model is grounded in the notion that when seminary institutions in the service of liberatory theological education exercise their institutional agency and deploy their resources and networks beyond their academic institution, and directly serve marginalized communities, they create capacities to become institutions of solidarity-builders and justice-makers. Their institutional character embodies leadership as servants of solidarity.

People jia johnson

Jia Johnson currently serves as program director for McCormick Theological Seminary’s Solidarity Building Initiative for Liberative Carceral Education at Cook County Jail. Integrating her corporate, entrepreneurial, and management skills with her commitment to public ministry and liberative pedagogy, Johnson serves as McCormick’s liaison and convener in co-creating learning communities and collaborations that tend to the whole of incarcerated learners and their communities. Johnson is a strategic consultant, collaborating with diverse populations, industries, and networks to identify creative solutions for justice-making and solidarity-building. She currently serves as a board member for Community Renewal Society.

Previously, she developed partnerships with formerly incarcerated entrepreneurs at Sunshine Enterprises and Pathway to Enterprise for Returning Citizens, and served as public ministry engagement coordinator for Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. She served on the board for Off the Pews: Faith in Action and later transitioned to become the summer program director. Johnson holds a Master of Arts in public ministry with a concentration in racial justice from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. Johnson became involved with McCormick’s program while pursuing her master’s degree. She chose McCormick’s Certificate in Theological Studies Program (the “Program”) at Cook County Department of Corrections (“CCDOC”) as her field site and co-taught the pilot course with Dr. Jenny McBride.

III. Where You Feel Like Yourself Again: Transformative Theological Education in Prison

Wednesday, November 18, 3–4:15 p.m. EST
Presenters: Elizabeth Bounds, Sarah Farmer, and Rachelle Renee Green

How does theological education in prison feel? Reflecting on the ten years of the Certificate in Theological Studies program at a women’s prison in Georgia, we explore the theological dimensions of the generative space experienced by both teachers and students. Each of us will use biblical stories as the lens through which to name ways theological education in prison challenges not only assumptions about “prisoners,” but also assumptions about the nature and purposes of theological work. Jesus’ action to raise both Lazarus and Jairus’ daughter from the dead points to the radical creativity and possibility within death-dealing spaces. Jesus’ healing of the blind man through spit is a lens to explore the new/renewed visions of student-teachers, who often start blinded by their own assumptions. Finally, the parable of the works in the vineyard points to the subversion of values, of students and teachers, in the creation of learning spaces where all matter. Ultimately, in sharing stories, we come to understand that theological education in prison is where students incarcerated can “feel like yourself again.”

Elizabeth Bounds

Dr. Elizabeth M. Bounds is associate professor of Christian ethics at the Candler School of Theology, Emory University. The core of her work is focused on the complexity of moral and theological responses to violence and exclusion, whether in the U.S. prison system, ordinary congregational life, or post-conflict situations. Her current research studies theo-moral understandings of the good life among incarcerated women. She is co-founder/administrator of the Certificate in Theological Studies at the Arrendale State Prison for Women.

People sarah farmer

Sarah Farmer is assistant professor of practical theology and community development in the School of Theology and Ministry at Indiana Wesleyan University. As a practical theologian, she not only teaches community development courses, but also teaches in the areas faith formation, youth ministry, and transformative pedagogy.

Before coming to Indiana Wesleyan University in the Fall of 2018, Farmer served as an associate research scholar and lecturer at Yale Divinity School and helped direct the Adolescent Faith and Flourishing Program at Yale Center for Faith and Culture. Farmer received her MDiv and PhD from Emory University, where she taught as an adjunct faculty and co-directed a Certificate in Theological Studies Program at a Women’s Prison.

Farmer co-founded the Youth Arts and Peace Camp in Chester, Pennsylvania, and worked with the Youth Hope-Builders Academy at Interdenominational Theological Center. She is co-author with Anne E. Streaty Wimberly of Raising Hope: 4 Paths to Courageous Living for Black Youth, which explores the ways adults can become agents of hope in the lives of young people who might be in the midst of circumstances that seem hopeless.

People rachelle renee green

Rachelle Renee Green is assistant professor of practical theology and education at Fordham University’s Graduate School of Religion and Religious Education. Her interdisciplinary scholarship brings together liberationist theologies, social ethics, and critical pedagogies to explore theologies and philosophies of education for populations on the margins of academic discourse. Her current research focuses on vocation, redemption, and the life-affirming purposes of theological education among incarcerated women.

Green is a former director of the Certificate in Theological Studies Program at Lee Arrendale Prison for Women in Georgia. She comes to theological scholarship after a career in business management and strategic marketing where she focused intently on the needs of women and families of color. Green is a licensed minster in the National Baptist Convention, USA. She is an alum of Emory University (PhD 2019) and Emory’s Candler School of Theology (MDiv 2014).

IV. Freeing the Imprisoned and Those Who Imprison Them

Thursday, November 19, 3–4:15 p.m. EST
Presenters: Andrew Stotnicki

The robust literature pointed toward the demonstrative failures of the criminal justice system by both secular and religious critics needs to be augmented by a metaethical component. The root problem, not unlike our political impasses, is that those on each side of the issue are speaking different languages. The ethical presuppositions of the major religions concerning an ontological orientation to care for creature and creation have been at best misinterpreted and at worst dismissed by a prevailing national discourse of binary divisions, none more destructive than that which separates the lawless from the lawful and the imprisoned from the free. Teaching theology in jail/prison is a small step in reorienting the incarcerated students, and those who oversee them, to expand the horizon of care to include everything and everyone. This goal is addressed by a pedagogical focus utilizing the concepts of conversion and prophecy.

People andrew skotnicki

Andrew Skotnicki teaches theological and criminological ethics at Manhattan College in New York City. He is the author of numerous articles on the theological and ethical implications of criminal justice. He has also written four books, the latest of which, Conversion and the Rehabilitation of the Penal System, has received the 2019 Aldersgate Prize that honors the book that best exemplifies Christian engagement with the social order. He is founder and director of the E3MC program (Engaging, Educating, Empowering Means Change), an educational partnership between Manhattan College and jails on Rikers Island and Westchester County.


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