By Christopher Zoukis
Academics and something more—that’s what this initiative is about; yet that something is the defining feature of this program that is working to endow prisoners with more than just academic skills when they leave prison behind them and return to South Carolina’s streets. The South Carolina Prison Initiative Program is a partnership between the state’s prison system and Columbia International University. The something that defines this initiative is its faith-based component that provides inmates with spiritual tools they need to make a genuine life change.
Columbia International University Prison Initiative
According to the university’s website, “The mission of the initiative is to train inmates to live in accordance with biblical principles and to equip them for the unique ministry opportunities available to them because of their incarceration.” Along with general academic subject matter, prisoners are instructed in general ministry skills. Essentially, the program seeks to empower participants so that they may positively empower others upon their release. Inmates who participate in the initiative’s accredited Associate of Arts program designed particularly for them are equipped to embrace the ministering opportunities that may be open to them upon their eventual release from prison. According to CIU, 95 percent of all the inmates in the South Carolina prison system will be released at some point.
Not all inmates are interested or eligible to participate in this program. According to CIU, “The program will be offered only to inmates who meet and maintain high standards of personal conduct” and the school’s “standards for academic achievement.” That said, this program provides an alternative for qualifying inmates; rather than do nothing to improve their skills while incarcerated, they can work toward a brighter future by learning viable skills that can effectively help them change their lives and reduce the risk of returning to the lifestyle or behaviors that caused them to go to prison in the first place.
Upon successful completion of the program, inmates will have acquired seventy hours of coursework. The program has three essential divisions:
· Bible and Theology
∙ General Education (including English, History, Math and Psychology)
· General Ministry Skills (including preaching, mission work, and evangelism)
This unique program has been created with inmates in mind so it has been customized to develop interpersonal and speaking skills. Its designers have created a learning paradigm that penetrates cultural barriers and increases participants’ knowledge of the larger world through broadened academic experience.
Inmates are not eligible for federal or state aid for education. Consequently, many prison educational programs rely upon private funding, government grant programs, or contributions from citizens or various organizations such as churches or local businesses. Many citizens and groups have been encouraged to give to such initiatives as they have been proven to reduce recidivism and increase the likelihood that an inmate will change his or her life for the better. Most people understand that releasing someone back into society with no more skills than they went to prison with does not equip them to change and to better themselves. Programs like the CIU Prison Initiative try to give some inmates the tools and resources they need to improve their futures substantially and for good.
Faith-based prison initiatives are not unique. While many debate whether they work better than other types of prison education programs, USA Today reported that “evidence is strong that violence and trouble-making drop sharply in these programs” (usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/religion/2007-10-13-prisons_N.htm). The article suggested that prisoners who participate in similar faith-based initiatives “feel they are treated with respect. They have hope.”
There are usually critics of faith-based programs and even skeptics who don’t believe such programs work or work better than other programs. Yet it’s important to remember that inmates aren’t forced to sign on to this program; often they already subscribe to its belief system in spite of their past crimes. In essence, it’s a partnership they enter into freely with the university and correctional department. They agree to participate, they take the classes, and they do the work needed to improve their lives. Armed with new skill sets, inmates have a chance upon completion of their coursework to change, to become who they want to be when they reenter the outside world again.