CRESAPTOWN, Md. (AP) — Although a new seminary program will officially start at the Western Correctional Institution in Cresaptown later this year, the Pilgrim Theological Seminary School actually got underway in April and it appears to be well received, leading some prisoners to pledge to “do no harm” to anyone at the prison.
Currently, there are about 100 prisoners enrolled and the program’s director, Keith Smith, is expecting more to join in the fall.
Pilgrim offers study programs for an associate’s degree in Christian studies and a bachelor’s degree in Christian leadership.
Although the seminary programs are designed toward theological studies, each program has general education college-level credits that can be transferred if a prisoner chooses to pursue education or employment upon his release.
There have been unintended consequences of the classes, too — prisoners have taken it upon themselves to institute what they call the “Do No Harm” promise, a vow an inmate makes that they will not harm anyone at WCI, whether they are an inmate or an employee, for the remainder of their incarceration.
Although “Do No Harm” is not an administrative decision, it is being embraced and encouraged by the staff. When an inmate signs the DNH pledge card, they are given a label to be attached to their prison identification recognizing that they have made the promise.
Mancil Clark, 68, who is attending for his associate’s degree in Christian studies, mentioned that, although there are officially recorded members of the DNH promise, many prisoners are not as willing to sign their name to anything, but have decided to live by it nonetheless. Those who were interviewed agreed with Clark.
“I don’t think we’ve had a serious issue out here since we started it,” said Henry Waller Jr., 56, who is also going for his bachelor’s degree in Christian leadership. “When it was born, it was first just inside the classroom,” he said.
Since DNH was started this year, it has continued to spread throughout the WCI community, and Waller said he hopes it can spread to other nearby prisons, such as North Branch Correctional Institute next door.
Nationally, Pilgrim currently has more than 1,500 incarcerated men and women enrolled in its education programs.
There is no tuition for the prisoners who wish to enroll, and the only payment requested is a donation from the student or from outside sources such as churches or family members.
Pilgrim estimates that each student would only require around $350 a year, less than a dollar per day, to cover the costs of their education.
Several churches in the nearby area have made donations already.
“We like to say, `It’s free to the inmates but it does cost something,”‘ said Smith, referring to the basic costs of educational materials.
Local church organizations have already donated funds and supplies for the WCI program, which Smith and inmates expressed gratitude for receiving.
Smith added that the mission of Pilgrim is to educate prisoners in order to better prepare them to re-enter society, as well as to improve the quality of life inside WCI.
“If you provide a person in prison with about 15 months of education, it drops recidivism from 75 percent to about 25 percent,”?Smith said, citing the benefits of educating prisoners.
The program currently offers three theological degrees and provides college class credit hours for inmates.
Each degree program consists of a mix of gospel and theological subjects and also common general education classes offered at all accredited colleges, such as English 101.
Since its implementation in April, the program has spread quickly.
“I remember when it started,” said Hazard Wilson, 53, a prisoner at WCI who is enrolled in the bachelor’s degree of Christian leadership. “We only had enough people to fill a table, but now the whole room’s just about full,” he said.
The growing number of inmates appear to be attracted to the spiritual side of the program as much as the academic.
Clark said that his hope was, “to be able to hold an intelligent conversation about the Bible.”
Those interested in learning more about Pilgrim Theological Seminary School or who are interested in making donations to the program can contact them through their website at http://pilgrimseminary.webs.com/degrees-programs or by calling 412-922-5300.
Information from: Cumberland (Md.) Times-News, http://www.times-news.com/timesnew.html
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)