Printer-friendly version

Lessons in Civil Disobedience

After arrests for trying to disrupt executions by the state, two divinity students turned to a new model for prison ministry.

additional year fine-tuning logistics with the prison system. The acronym TURN—Transform, Unlock, Renew—was inspired by Romans 2:12. The passage “Be transformed by the renewing of your minds” is one that Jobe says helps her “re-center myself in the work we’re doing.”

Getting into prison is not as easy as one might think. Visitors who volunteer to lead programs create more work, straining limited resources and staffing. With new seminary students participating in Project TURN each semester, there’s increased demand for prison staff to train them on prison regulations. There is also competition for space.

In collaboration with alumna Betty Brown D’96, director of correctional chaplaincy in North Carolina, Project TURN moved from vision to reality. Brown became a staunch advocate of the program, and helped introduce the program not only at the Raleigh Correctional Center for Women, but also at the Durham Correctional Center.

Despite the difficulties involved, Jobe says the outcome has been worth the effort. She recognizes the need to be flexible and persistent. “I try not to take no for an answer. I know folks are busy, but I’ve also learned that they will be honest with me if they don’t think they can help.”

The first class began January 2008 at the Raleigh Correctional Center for Women. The “Spiritual Autobiography” course attracted five incarcerated women and five Duke Divinity School students. There have since been four additional courses, including “Novels and the Spiritual Journey,” “Paul’s Writings in Prison,” “Riffing on Scripture: The Bible in Art, Literature, and Culture,” and “The Life and Thought of Martin Luther King.” All classes are free, and Project TURN provides books and supplies for incarcerated students. Teachers openly acknowledge that the class has a specifically Christian focus and is a partnership with Duke Divinity School training people for Christian ministry. Duke students can receive independent study credit for their participation.

The annual cost of Project TURN, which is supported entirely by donations from individuals and churches, is $14,000.

The program has gained a reputation on the inside for courses that require  serious self-reflection. As a result, the women who participate self-select. Jobe says women have told her, “I heard about your class, but I wasn’t ready to take it. I think I’m ready now, though, to do the work.” Applicants for the class must write an essay stating why they want to participate, and how they envision the experience will challenge them and spur personal growth.

Jobe begins each class with the expectation that she will learn from the women around her.  She is committed to naming each student’s worth and to building every student’s confidence. At the end of each semester, she practices what she calls “narrative grading.” In a letter to each student, Jobe identifies the strengths and gifts she has observed, and the additional ways she envisions the student’s growth—if the student is willing to do the necessary work.

“A lot of the inmates have had negative experiences with school in the past,” Jobe says. “I want to offer a different model, one that does not rank individuals.” Both Jobe and Wilson-Hartgrove believe that success is measured by the transformation of lives.

“When we hear someone say that they understand the world around them differently—whether it’s the system of incarceration and people on the 'outside' or in prisons—that’s success to us,” says Jobe, who makes an effort to stay connected with former students, both in prison and after their release.

“As I keep up with folks I can see them taking on new life paths, going into ministry centers and academic programs that they would have previously never considered, or thought themselves worthy of. I hear them saying that being in our class made them self-confident enough to imagine a new life.”

Jobe sees Duke students change as well. She hopes that they will practice ministry differently. “When there is a new level of comfort across social divides, there is a new ability to imagine oneself as a pastor taking congregants into prisons. All of a sudden they have a broadened imagination of what God might be calling them to do.”

Isaac Villegas D’06, a Mennonite pastor who began teaching at the Durham Correctional Facility last summer, co-taught the course “Paul’s Writings in Prison” with New Testament Professor Douglas Campbell. His incarcerated students, he says, soon recognized that prison is not foreign to the Christian tradition.

“They are in prison for very different reasons than St. Paul, or Martin Luther King Jr., or the early church bishop Ignatius