OSSINING, N.Y. — Inside the castle-thick walls of Sing Sing prison here, more than a dozen convicted murderers, drug dealers, and thieves sit in a cramped classroom arguing the merits of various theologies.
The question: Does the development of a female image of God serve to enhance a sense of community or create barriers?
Such esoteric topics are routine fare behind bars here in an unusual program aimed at giving inmates master's degrees in theology - and transforming lives.
The program, run by the New York Theological Seminary (NYTS), is designed to prepare inmates for return to their communities as leaders and healers.
By most accounts, it is working. At a time when the repeat offender rate in New York stands at 42 percent - and 34.7 percent nationwide - only 5 percent of the inmates who complete the program and are released, end up back in prison. Yet the program, which other seminaries are considering replicating, may soon go out of existence. It is in danger of becoming a casualty in the national debate over the role of prisons as places of punishment or rehabilitation.
"The seminary is there to put the crowning touches on the turn-around the individual has already begun for himself," says the Rev. Lonnie McLeod, one of the founders of the NYTS program.
The threat comes not from budget cuts - the program is paid for entirely by the seminary and private donations - but from a lack of qualified students. Three years ago, at the height of the get-tough on crime backlash, both the federal and New York State governments made prison inmates ineligible to receive educational grants.
The result, the pool of qualified inmates - those with the necessary bachelor's degree - has shrunk dramatically.
"It's a bone-headed idea," says the Rev. George (Bill) Webber, director of the NYTS Sing Sing Program, noting that the higher the education level, the less likely an inmate is to return to prison. "Like so much of what we're doing, it's stupid on fiscal grounds: It costs so much more to put them back in prison."
But New York Gov. George Pataki's office doesn't view the issue from the grounds of long-term fiscal soundness.
"Quite simply, prison is for punishment," says Chris Chichester, director of communication for the state's division of the budget. "New York is not in the business of rewarding those who commit crimes with a subsidized education."
For the 14 men who sit around the Sing Sing classroom three hours a day, five days a week, prison has been a punitive and painful experience. But is has also been a transforming one - in large part, because of that subsidized education.
All have been in prison for more than 10 years. All but one, earned their bachelor's degrees there. Almost half, arrived as high school dropouts.
"The college program helped us open up our consciousness, expand our horizons and put us in touch with our own humanity and that of others," says Shuaib Abdur-Raheem, who is about to begin his 25th year in prison on a murder conviction. "This program just enhances it even more."
Their course of study is as intellectually rigorous as any graduate level course, and then some. "We have to have first-rate faculty because the accrediting body assumes we're second rate because it's inmates, mostly black and Hispanics, and it's in a prison," says Webber.
It was inmates who first broached the idea of starting a master's program with Webber and NYTS. A small group, including Mr. McLeod, had finished their bachelor's degrees and wanted to do graduate work.
That was in 1981, in the wake of the Attica riot when prison reform was at the top of the political agenda. By 1982, the program was up and running. In the past 15 years, more than 200 prisoners have graduated.
"The inmates have to work day and night to get that degree," says Sing Sing Superintendent John Keane, noting the students are chosen from prisons around the state then transferred to Sing Sing to participate.
They're expected to analyze thinkers as diverse as Martin Buber and Martin Luther King, then apply that understanding to the urban ills that daily tear at the inner cities.
"I hope I've become more open, more compassionate, but also angry at the whole system that allowed me to be shaped by my own ignorance - angry enough so that I'm going to change it," says Javan Alexander Higgins, who's served 12 years on a felony robbery count.
That sentiment is shared by every inmate sitting around the table. Most want to go back to where they came from - one of the seven neighborhoods in New York City that provide about 75 percent of the state's prison population
Poor, predominantly black and Hispanic, abandoned by commercial businesses and the middle class of all races, those communities are breeding grounds for future prison populations. These men believe their experience can help change that environment.
"We can show both sides of the fence objectively and approach it intelligently, with both academic credentials and personal experience," says Mr. Higgins.
And NYTS prepares them for that community service. Beyond their academic training, the inmates are required to perform 15 hours of field-service work in the prison.
Some work on the AIDS ward, others assist the chaplain, still others teach in the pre-release program inmates are required to attend before being paroled.
"The promise they make to the seminary is that in exchange for this year of free education, they'll find jobs that will be helpful to other inmates," says Webber, noting most of the graduates who've been released from prison now work in human services.
Eddie Ellis is a case in point. Paroled after serving 23 years on a murder conviction, he spends his time helping at-risk kids and creating opportunities for them.
"A lot of kids have misplaced values about prison. Many think it's a right of passage, a kind of black and Latino finishing school," says Mr. Ellis, now president of the Community Justice Center in Harlem, a nonprofit agency dedicated to helping former prisoners transition back into society.
Ellis routinely holds classes and gives talks to kids on the edge of trouble - stressing how something as simple as a snide comment made to a police officer can start a ruckus that could eventually land them in jail.
"Once the kids know you've been there and come out whole, you command their respect," says Ellis, who is now spearheading a state-wide effort to urge Governor Pataki to take the $21 million dollars slated to build three new jails and instead put it into neighborhood services. It's part of Ellis's overall mission to reform the way society views at-risk kids and the whole correctional system.
"Going into the 21st century, most of the adult male leadership in the black and Latino communities is going to come out of the prisons; we simply have more black and Latino men in prison, than in college," says Ellis. "At some point, that prison experience is going to have to be a transforming experience."
NYTS understands that, and is dedicated to finding a way to continue its work in Sing Sing - even if that means starting the equivalent of an undergraduate program.
"This is a symbol of what a seminary ought to be doing," says Webber. "We ought to be with the dispossessed, the lepers of our society. This is where you can find hope."