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Theo Focus on Faculty with Traci West

“The PREP program is at the heart of what I am called to do as a professor at a seminary.”

September 2022 – We recently sat down with Traci West, James W. Pearsall Professor of Christian Ethics and African American Studies at Drew Theological School, to learn more about the relaunch of the school’s Partnership for Religion and Education in Prisons Program (PREP).

PREP, which has been offering classes in two New Jersey prisons for more than a decade, brings the Drew classroom into the prison setting with the goal of equally educating both incarcerated and Theological School students through the sharing of diverse experiences, identities, and belief systems. 

West’s passion for restorative justice and reentry through the PREP program is evident. “The PREP program is at the heart of what I am called to do as a professor at a seminary,” she said.

The program, which had been paused due to the COVID-19 pandemic, relaunched in spring 2022 at East Jersey State Prison in Rahway, New Jersey, with a new initiative to offer the first graduate level certificate program in the state of New Jersey. West shared the success of the program relaunch.

A spring and summer intensive class has been offered at New Jersey State Prison. How has the experience been thus far?
During the spring class we had the challenge of COVID restrictions, which delayed the start of in-person classes. But by the middle of the semester, we were able to have classes inside the prison. I found it especially exciting to teach about historic and religiously diverse prophetic leaders, such as Ida B. Wells, Abraham Heschel, and Malcolm X. I loved the mixture of critical questions and innovative ideas about how to apply those legacies today that are raised by students who are both prisoners (inside students) and those who accompany faculty (outside students). The outside student perspectives include insights from a range of international contexts.

The program is now structured to offer the first graduate level certificate program in the state of New Jersey. Why is this groundbreaking?
As I teach graduate courses to inside students, I have found a hunger for further study that allows them to reflect on complex intellectual texts and questions as well as further develop their academic skills. For the first time, they are being given the chance for this kind of constructive development that builds upon the undergraduate studies they have undertaken while in prison.

West received her PhD in Christian Social Ethics from Union Theological Seminary, and her MDiv from the Pacific School of Religion. She is the author of Solidarity and Defiant Spirituality: Africana Lessons on Religion, Racism, and Ending Gender Violence and Disruptive Christian Ethics: When Racism and Women’s Lives Matter, among many other books, chapters, and articles.

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