If a society’s approach to punishment reflects its understanding of God, the $68 billion U.S. prison system is a crucible for theology
On a clear, brisk Sunday morning last January, Ken Carder and his students arrived by appointment, in separate cars, at the Bureau of Prisons Federal Correctional Institution north of Durham. The class members, who had met only once before, had not formed a bond. Most of the students had never been inside a jail or prison. Even Carder, who had been making prison visits for decades, felt anxious.
They entered the prison’s medical center, impressed by its cleanliness and the courteous welcome from staff. But they still had to fill out paperwork, go through a metal detector, and have hands stamped to pass through an ultraviolet light-sensitive security device used farther inside.
They moved on, with escorts, noticing observation cameras and an increase in uniformed guards. Their progress toward a meeting with inmates was punctuated with metal doors slamming shut behind them.
It was the cliché of prison movies, and unnervingly real.
“We were entering a very different world than the halls of Duke Divinity School,” says Carder, Ruth W. and A. Morris Williams Jr. professor of the practice of Christian ministry and a retired United Methodist bishop.
He wouldn’t have had it any other way for the 15 students enrolled in “Restorative Justice, Prison Ministry, and the Church.”
Though Carder and other Divinity School professors had made prison ministry a part of various courses — as well as a focus of independent studies — one dedicated to the subject was new for Duke. Carder intended to balance the theoretical with the practical at every turn.
The class met in Langford 042, but also went three times to the federal prison. Students had readings and lectures on theology and restorative justice, and also grounded themselves in facts about incarceration in the United States. Guest speakers included prison chaplains, crime victims, reform advocates, and former inmates.
“It’s easy to take a text and embrace words and feel like you have mastered knowledge about an issue,” says Amey Victoria Adkins D’09, who took the course her final semester. “It’s totally different to take those texts and reflect on them with the people the texts are talking about.”