Women Reaching Women behind Prison Walls

September 13, 2012

CIU Prison Initiative Expands

By Bob Holmes

Amy Roberts realized from the first day that working with female inmates would be different from working with male inmates. 

Roberts is the administrative assistant for the Columbia International University Prison Initiative, a program that trains qualified inmates in the South Carolina Department of Corrections to serve as chaplain’s assistants after completing an accredited Associate of Arts degree from CIU. 

“It started in the (acceptance) interview process when we had to bring out Kleenexes, which we never had to do in the men’s interviews,” Roberts says with a hint of laughter in her voice.

“And that openness among women to just be vulnerable with each other from day one and to be open and honest – it’s just different,” Roberts said.   “Men and women just show their emotions differently.”                  

Since its inception in 2007, the CIU Prison Initiative has graduated three cohorts of 15 men each.  The graduates are assigned to prisons around the state where the inmates, as the Prison Initiative mission states, “live in accordance with biblical principles (equipped) for the unique ministry opportunities afforded by their incarceration.” 

The Women’s Turn

Following the same curriculum as the men’s initiative, the women will earn 69 undergraduate credits over a two-year, six-semester track, under the teaching of CIU faculty and staff. Math, English, history and psychology courses form the general education core. Bible and theology will account for nearly half of the credits, with ministry skills classes rounding out the program.

A program for women had been envisioned for some time, but was not feasible until a recent financial gift provided sufficient resources to make it a reality.  The first cohort of 15 women live and study at the Camille Griffin Graham Correctional Institution, part of the sprawling prison complex just across the Broad River from CIU’s campus.

“Jessica” (full names cannot be used because of security concerns), a former atheist who became a believer in prison, says she wanted to be a student in the Prison Initiative so she could teach the Word of God to fellow inmates.

“I wanted an in-depth study of the Bible,” Jessica said.  “I felt called to understand it better so I could help someone else come to Him, and change their life like He did for me.”  

Help From Across the River

The Prison Initiative also offers an opportunity for students from CIU’s main campus to mentor the freshmen student-inmates across the river, some of whom haven’t been in a classroom situation for years. 

CIU junior Marshanda Shadrix who is majoring in Family and Church Education, says at first she didn’t think she would enjoy being a tutor, but God has altered her perspective.           

“I see how much lives can be changed,” Shadrix said.  “I feel I learn a lot from (the student-inmates), because they are a lot older than me.”        

Enter the English Teacher

 On a recent visit to the Women’s Prison Initiative, the student-inmates were studying at their computers and at their desks, which is also their classroom.  They occasionally spoke to each other in hushed tones as they helped each other with homework.  Then the English teacher walked in.

Ashley Dannelly, who doubles as an assistant cross country coach at CIU, bounded into the classroom.  Dannelly, a woman full of energy and a big smile, called her English class to order, and then promptly divided the students into groups of three to discuss the classic short story, “The Lady or the Tiger” – a story with an open ending.

“They’re collaborating to decide the ending,” Dannelly said.  “It allows them to work together and be creative.  It looks like they’re having a lot of fun with it,” she adds with a laugh.       

A Different Crime, a Different Time 

English is the favorite subject for student-inmate “Tara” who says she “loves to write.”

“I never knew I was a poet until I started writing.” Tara added.

In one of her unnamed poems, written in perfect penmanship on standard loose leaf paper, she reflects on the grace that brought her salvation, and her concern for the unsaved inmates around her:

I do my best to uplift, inspire and encourage. 

Their stories cause me pain but no worries.

You see there’s not much of a difference between their stories and mine;

A different drug, a different crime and a different time.


Meanwhile, “Jessica” speaks for her cohort when she recognizes how much has gone into making the CIU Prison Initiative possible. 

“Everyone in this class is so thankful for the prayers, the money, the time, the teachers, everything that has come together to make this possible,” Jessica said.  “We are all so awed and grateful for the opportunity.”   

For more on the CIU Prison Initiative call (803) 807-5020.