Christian Higher Education Since 1892

The President's Report 2013 - GC Prison Initiative

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In Prison, But Not Forgotten

“I was terrified of going into the prison,” recalls senior Wes Bergen of his first visit to the Greenville Federal Correctional Institution just south of town. He had agreed to take part in the Greenville College Prison Initiative to help bring a bit of college community “inside” prison walls. Looking back, he attributes his initial service more to a desire for camaraderie with classmates than dedication to ministry.

Wes hails from a middle class family he describes as “respectable.” “My parents never had so much as a speeding ticket,” he says. Inexperienced and unread on the topic of prisons prior to that first visit, he leaned heavily on imagination to shape his opinion of prisoners. He saw them as dangerous, careless, self-indulgent and not too bright.  

“It's probably ironic then that my first visit was to play chess, the quintessential intellectual game that takes clear thinking and patience to win,” he notes. “It's also ironic that I lost most of my games. Maybe not ironic – more like encountering my own blindness. It was a real eye-opener when my notion of ‘the prisoner’ collapsed.”

Chess

After two years of playing chess, facilitating a book club and eventually teaching classes in logic on the “inside,” Wes is still mystified at Jesus’ clear instruction to visit the imprisoned. “Maybe it has something to do with learning to see and fight against the racism and classism present in our own society,” he says. “I wish everyone could share my experience of spending time with ‘the least of these’ because social change would necessarily come as a result.”

Wes is one of dozens of GC students, faculty and staff who, since 2009, have helped the college and prison communities come together for learning and recreation. The Greenville Federal Correctional Institution houses a medium security area for male offenders and an adjacent minimum security “camp” for female offenders. College students have frequented both venues, helping folks prepare for their high school equivalency exams; playing chess, volleyball and basketball; and teaching logic, ethics, philosophy, and art.

Kent Dunnington, professor of religion and philosophy at GC, coordinates the effort and knows its impact on members of the prison community. “The help they get on their GEDs is great, but pales in comparison to the affirmation and love they receive as human beings,” he says. “They know they are not forgotten; that is the biggest thing by far. One inmate told me during a chess match, ‘Kent, for the three or four hours you all are here with us, we forget these walls exist.’”

ZahniserWes Bergen sometimes forgets those walls, too. They disappeared when the reading group he helped organize delved into Matt Zahniser’s The Mission and Death of Jesus in Christianity and Islam. Orthodox Muslims participating in the discourse contributed to a defining moment for Wes. “We couldn't help but have open dialogue about our faiths,” he recalls. “I remember they called us polytheists when we discussed an article on the Trinity. By that point, I no longer thought of these men as prisoners, but as fellow believers in God.”

Wes refers to his prison experience as a profound blessing, even if it has lost its intrigue as a terror-inducing thrill. He now comfortably engages with prisoners and feels at ease with the relationships that have evolved. “You can’t spend time in prison and not be changed,” he observes.

His insight is keen. It may even explain some of the “why” behind Jesus’ call for his followers to enter prisons and engage with “the least of these.”

Did you know . . .

  • Long before GC’s current prison initiative, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy and Religion Frank Thompson taught classes at the prison in Greenville.
  • GC’s 2013 Loyalty Awardee Dan Jensen has directed several productions of the play “Twelve Angry Men” at the prison.
  • GC students record incarcerated men and women reading children’s books. The recordings are mailed to their children so they can hear their parents’ voices.
  • GC alumnus Stan Pickett ‘91 serves as director of education at the Greenville Correctional Institution.
  • Professors Brian Hartley and Kent Dunnington taught an “inside-out” course in Spiritual Autobiography in the women’s prison, bringing GC students into the prison classroom alongside women serving time.
  • Professor Richard Huston was awarded for his volunteer work preparing Spanish-speaking prisoners for their GED exams. Spanish-speaking students also assist in his classes.
  • Texts discussed by prisoners and students at the prison include the letters of Saint Paul, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers From Prison, and Plato’s Republic.