News - Greenville College Students, Alumni and Faculty Invest in Prison Communities

Greenville College Students, Alumni and Faculty Invest in Prison Communities

Greenville College Students, Alumni and Faculty Invest in Prison Communities

Since 2009, Greenville College students and professors, as part of the Greenville College Prison Initiative, have regularly visited the Federal Correctional Institution south of town. They tutor incarcerated men and women for the GED exam, play chess, lead a book club and so much more. The following stories are about GC students, alumni and faculty investing in prison communities; sharing hope and showing love through shared activities and authentic relationships.


Chess Board“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.”

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.’”

The Mission and Death of Jesus in Islam and ChristianityWes 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

HEALING WORDS IN A HARD PLACE – When Erika Spring ’11 chose to serve as a summer intern chaplain at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women, the only women’s prison in New Jersey, she chose to participate in a community marked by fear and despair. Many of the 780 women incarcerated at the Mahan facility have known physical and sexual abuse.

Erika recalls the moment when one woman she counseled finally understood that dealing drugs did not dictate her future. Challenged to imagine a different life, the woman responded with goals: “I want to help abused animals. I want to educate people about what prison is like. I want to go to beauty school.” The best moment came with the woman’s realization: “I never knew I cared about any of these things. But now I can look at this list and know that I have things to work toward!”

Women in all security levels engaged in conversation with Erika, including those in solitary confinement. “I heard them talk with pride about their kids and the faith they have in God being a good God,” she said. “I was blessed to sit with women as they cried, encourage them and tell them that God still loves them.”

She also served the prison’s officers and administrators, an experience that contributed to her expanded understanding of faith. “I have learned more about how to love,” she said. “Often people that are the most difficult to love are the ones who are in the most need.”

Erika’s ministry deepened her compassion. It helped her imagine how she would represent these incarcerated women in the greater community outside the confines of prison. “I want to carry their stories well [and] in such a way that the world has an adequate picture of who these women really are.”


These articles were originally published in The RECORD Winter 2013- President's Report.

This story was published on January 22, 2014

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