In the Prison Fellowship Academy, prisoners find a safe place to grow.
As a Prison Fellowship field director, one of Alan Lane's favorite things to do is visit with incarcerated men and women. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, he now often has visits with them virtually. Recently, he decided to sit in on a Prison Fellowship Academy® class at State Correctional Institution-Chester over Zoom. SCI Chester is a medium-security correctional facility for men in Chester, Pennsylvania.
Prison Fellowship® was planning to launch an Academy at SCI Chester during the summer of 2020. But in March 2020, prisons began shutting down because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Although Prison Fellowship staff and volunteers were unable to meet in person with the prisoners, Taneisha Spall, the SCI Chester education department principal, did allow a virtual Hope Event™ on the prison's religious programming channel. She promoted the Hope Event and generated a lot of enthusiasm among the men. She also told them about the Prison Fellowship Academy.
By the time the Academy launched in March 2021, the prisoners were so interested in participating that Prison Fellowship had to start two cohorts to keep within the facility's social distancing restrictions.
A SAFE PLACE TO SHARE
At Prison Fellowship, we believe prisons can be transformed into places where people can learn and practice the Values of Good CitizenshipTM. Through targeted curriculum, compassionate coaches, and restorative community engagement, Academy participants develop and practice biblically based Values of Good Citizenship during a yearlong program. After this, they often become change agents, acting as good citizens inside and outside of prison.
VALUES OF GOOD CITIZENSHIP™
The night Alan joined via Zoom, the Academy had only been running for five weeks, but Prison Fellowship staff were already seeing a change in the men. The discussion Alan attended was on strategies for changing their lives and how people need a supportive group for accountability.
"Hey, Zane*," one of the prisoners said, addressing a fellow participant. "You've been dealing with some things. This is a great place to share."
Zane shut him down pretty quickly with a simple, "No, thanks."
"Are you sure?" a volunteer asked over Zoom. "This is a safe place. You can share here."
But again, Zane refused. Through his screen, Alan could see Zane further distancing himself from the group with his body language. He pulled away from the table, his head down and his hands on his knees.
For another 15 minutes, the conversation flowed around him, but Zane wouldn't join in.
Then someone said something about being responsible and taking ownership of your actions.
At that, Zane lifted his head and asked the group, "Can I tell you something?"
COMMUNITY IN ACTION
At the urging of the others, Zane began to share. He told the group that just 24 hours before, he had learned that he had lost his parental rights.
Zane had not reacted very well upon learning this. In his disappointment, he got into an altercation with another prisoner on the block. He knew that his actions were going to result in a misconduct, that he might be placed in the RHU (restricted housing unit), or even be transferred out of his housing unit.
Worst of all, he knew his actions most likely meant his removal from the Academy. He explained that he was most worried about losing his opportunity to change his life within this context.
His classmates supported him. From their socially distanced spots in the classroom came words of encouragement: "We are here for you. We’ve got your back."
Alan chimed in and told him to start putting the principles of the program into practice.
"Why don't you go talk to Principal Spall? Own your actions and their impact," he suggested.
While encouraging him, Alan also told Zane and the other men the story of Jesus' disciple, Peter. Peter was a good friend of Jesus, but he didn't respond well under pressure. He was even isolated from his friends for a while because of his actions, but Jesus restored him. Alan reminded Zane that, even in isolation, there can be restoration.
After listening, Zane asked if he could be excused. He wanted to talk to Principal Spall without delay. Her office is located directly across the hall from the meeting room, and she was there at the time. So off he went.
When he came back five minutes later, he looked like a completely different person. Zane had a huge smile on his face. His head was up, and his shoulders were back.
Everyone asked, "What happened? What happened?"
"I went and told Principal Spall that I was sorry for doing wrong," he told the group. "I told her I wanted to take responsibility for my actions, and I asked her if there was any way I could stay in the program because it's doing me so much good.
"She told me that she appreciated the change she has seen in me and sees the value of me participating in the Academy. And that even though I might still face discipline for what I had done, she would make sure I could still stay in the Academy."
The guys all cheered and high-fived one another. One of the volunteers started crying. Zane couldn't stop thanking everybody.
WHY THE ACADEMY MATTERS
After the prisoners signed off that night, Alan stayed on the line with the Academy volunteers. "This is why we do what we do," he told them. "This man—because of what he's already learning in the Academy—took responsibility. His life is changing forever."
Zane proved you don't have to finish the Academy to start to change.
*Name has been changed.
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