USA : a prison class in African religion attracts students beyond its walls

In many ways, the class that met here Tuesday night could be in any university in the United States. There were desks arranged in a circle to facilitate discussion. There were student presentations based on dense readings. And there was the faint buzzing from the fluorescent lights overhead.

But in other important respects, the class was anything but typical. Coils of razor wire glinted under security lights outside the window, and more than half the students wore the drab green uniforms that mark them as inmates in New York’s only maximum-security prison for women.

This was Union Theological Seminary’s course on African religions in the Americas. Six seminary students boarded a van in Manhattan over 16 weeks this fall, commuting about 35 miles north to reach the secure walls of the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. Part of a nationwide trend in prison education programs, it was a process that proved as educational and powerful for the graduate students as for the 10 inmates.

It’s a privilege, but it’s also complicated,” said Mandy Meisenheimer, a student at Union Theological, a nondenominational graduate school of theology. “It’s a privilege to meet these fabulous women and get our eyes in the prison system. But it’s a substantial commitment. We had to undergo background checks and were fingerprinted and we drive an hour and a half each way to get here.

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