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This article appeared on Page 14 & 15 of the Winter 2001 issue of the Fortune News with the following note about its author:

Michael J. Love is a prisoner in Sullivan Correctional Facility in New York. He has been incarcerated for ten years for first-degree armed robbery. He is forty-two years old, a husband and a father of five children. While in prison, he has earned his GED, Bachelor and Master's degrees.

Is there such a thing as Prison Theology (PriTheo)? And if there is, would such a metaphysical notion as PriTheo be peculiar to all other forms of theology? These were just some of the basic questions Ameti Bey, Talib and I have grappled with all year at Sullivan Prison.

As New York Theological Seminary alumni, we acquired our Masters Degree while at the infamous Sing Sing Prison, one of the oldest prison facilities in America. NYTS offers a graduate study program at Sing Sing prison.

As men in prison, we sought to examine the religious inertia behind the wall and evince a degree of reflection that would encourage faith adherents to soberly live out their theological precepts.

When we say PriTheo, we mean people in prison whole-heartedly working out their theological convictions in accordance with their faith tradition. PriTheo is prisoners re-examining ourselves with ruthless honesty. The fruit of this incessant re-examination is a transformation of character and worldview that utterly belies society's determination of people in prison as worthless irredeemable caricatures of humanity.
Above is a grayscale image-scan of Prisonerís Prayer, the watercolor illustration by Phillip-Justin Stout, a Delaware prisoner, that accompanied the Doing Prison Theology in the Winter 2001 issue of Fortune News.

Any man or woman in prison who sincerely and passionately embraces a faith tradition cannot help but obliterate those stereotypes which regard them as 'atavistic throw-back' of humanity, or as evil incarnate.

PriTheo believes that there is no person, nor any institution, that can dismiss or categorize any person as worthless or irredeemable. . . .

When human beings define someone as irredeemable and worthless, we make this determination based on what acts the person has committed, and based on what choices the person has not made. Our lack of foresight does not always permit us to see the person in the fullness of his/her potential.

PriTheo believes only the Creator can see these potentials, and perform the kind of work that brings wretched humankind to live up to his/her godly potentials.

PriTheo is the magnifying paradigm by which people in prison examine and re-define the social condition in which we experience theology . . . .
Above is an image of the drop-quote that appeared at this point in text.

PriTheo looks at the lives of those men and women in prison who have managed to permit the Creator to transform their lives. It attempts to determine at what point these captives managed to move from lukewarm/hypocritical faith, into a sold-out and authentic faithful practice.

PriTheo believes the further God/Spirituality is isolated from social life, the more powerful the need for moral decadence will become as a replacement for the exhilaration of faith. The notion of human beings creating a utopian society is catastrophic to the PriTheo model, because collective moral goodness and collective moral perfection remains elusive in the human drama.
NYCHS acknowledges and appreciates receiving permission from The Fortune Society to present these image and text excerpts from its Fortune News issues. The Fortune Society retains the copyrights to its published materials and reserves all rights thereunder.

Without relationship with the Creator, humankind functions as sophisticated beasts. The glaring, infamous and horrific attacks on September 11th jarred our nation and forced us to recognize how vulnerable and mortal we are. This horror led many people to re-evaluate their meaning of life and to see themselves as part of a bigger picture.

Prison is merely a microcosm of American culture. Just as most professing Christians and Muslims in prison seldom live out an authentic and organic life of faith, this is also true in American culture. . . .
In 1967, David Rothenberg produced an off-Broadway play, "Fortune and Men's Eyes," written by ex-prisoner John Herbert about the trauma of prison life.

One evening, during an open post performance discussion among audience members, an ex-inmate's account of his own experiences "on the Inside" made such an impression that word of it spread widely.

Soon community groups began organizing forums at which other ex-inmates were invited speak about prison conditions.

From that dynamic -- ex-prisoners and concerned members of the general public coming together to focus on prison conditions and on changing them -- developed The Fortune Society.

That November, Rothenberg and a few others formally founded the organization, taking its name from the play that had spotlighted the challenge.

The society now has over 125 full-time and part-time employees, of whom 70% are ex-prisoners and/or recovering substance abusers.

Click on logo image above (blue bird of hope) for more about The Fortune Society.

PriTheo acknowledges the disdainful suspicions unbelievers harbor for those who claim allegiance to God through their faith traditions. Usually unbelievers witness little or no transformation in terms of the believer's worldview and character. . . .

Why do few people use their faith tradition as the primary criteria for evaluating, challenging and correcting their distortions? Why do even fewer faith adherents dare to identify and dismantle the strongholds that have habitually marred and immobilized their own lives, and the lives of others?

PriTheo attempts to locate the answers to these questions, seeking to keep our hypocrisies painfully before us. Hoping to eventually eradicate them from the repertoire of our personality, PriTheo is the antithesis of jail-house-religion.

"Jail-house-religion," generally signifies those people who embrace religion merely as a result of the pressures and disillusionment of their incarceration, but once released from prison, they return to the normalcy of an immoral, criminal and chaotic lifestyle.
The imprisoned praying angel adopted as the top-of-this-page logo for these NYCHS excepts of Captive Spirituality comes from combining elements of two Fortune News front covers:
  • Above, from the Winter 2001 issue, featuring the angel drawing by Patrick Morse that won first place in The Fortune Society's second annual prisoner art contest judged Oct. 25th, 2001. Click image to access PDF file of entire issue.
  • Below, from the Winter/Spring 2004 issue, featuring cell bars. Click image to access PDF file of entire issue.
When The Fortune Society began in 1967, the founders produced a four-page mimeographed newsletter that later became Fortune News. The professionally printed issues now run 28 pages. The publication's page on the organization's web site features a list of links to PDF files of back issues, from Spring 2000 to date.

PriTheo recognizes jail-house-religion as the most common form of religion in prison. Jail-house-religion is the same as "Foxhole religion," which is found when conversion is based solely on tragic or near-death experiences.

Whether it is jail-house-religion or foxhole religion, the basic phenomena is the same. Religion becomes nothing more than a selfish crutch specific to the difficult situation. Once the situation, and/or mindset no longer exists, the alleged convert simply sheds his/her religion.

Most Christians, Muslims, Rastafarians, and Jews in prison remain as intemperate, as treacherous, and as immoral as the rest of the prison population. . . . Our faith tradition becomes nothing more than partisan affiliation, or exclusive religious fraternities. . . .

PriTheo believes that if a person approaches faith with reverence and solemnity, in whatever faith tradition he/she subscribes to, nothing can stem the tides of transformation.

Some Christians, Muslims, Rastafarians and Jews glare at each other with contempt, supposing their faith tradition to be better than any other. We scandalize and slander each other, sickened by theological dogmas that undermine the unity necessary for people in prison to rise above their current condition. . . .

We no longer can see and appreciate that we are fathers, sons, brothers, husbands, and uncles from the same communities.

Not able to feel each other's suffering, we erect these macho fortresses, which estrange us from each other as human beings. Our divisiveness benefits others, while proving to be a liability for any endeavor towards our empowerment.

When we make our differences the crucible point for evaluating each other, then we become complicit with the status quo, which exploits this quality. PriTheo seeks to dialogue about our commonality and understand and appreciate our differences without feeling compelled to judge those differences with dogmatic scorn.

We know there are differences which cannot be reconciled, but that we share things in common, and we need to build from places of commonality rather than difference. PriTheo believes that until faith tradition adherents begin to first exemplify respect and appreciation for our differences, our faith will mean little to those outside of our faith tradition.

To A Christmas Song from 1913-14 holiday issue of Sing Sing inmates' The Star of Hope

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