Prison Fellowship Academy allows incarcerated individuals to live and grow together

Prison Fellowship Academy allows incarcerated individuals to live and grow together


CONTACT Cara Wilwerding, Communications Manager

OFFICE 402-479-5712 |

Jan. 26, 2018 (Lincoln, Neb.) – “You generally don’t trust anybody in prison, but in this gallery there is a wealth of trust, growth and respect. You can lean on these guys here. We’re here for each other.”

This was one sentiment expressed by a resident living on the mission-specific housing gallery called the Prison Fellowship Academy at the Nebraska State Penitentiary (NSP). Mission-specific housing provides incarcerated individuals a way to create a sense of community, which can greatly improve their outlook and quality of life. The Nebraska Correctional Center for Women (NCCW) opened a Prison Fellowship Academy in March of 2017, while NSP opened their academy in June of 2017. The units, respectively, can hold up to 36 and 40 individuals who take classes, live and learn alongside each other.

“Many come to the realization that they can’t do it on their own or that they need spiritual help,” said Jim Forbes, Prison Fellowship director of communications. “In some units, the prisoners become like a family. They say it takes them out of the prison atmosphere and helps them focus on each other.”

Participants in NDCS’ Prison Fellowship Academies do indeed become as close as family. One participant in NSP’s academy quickly learned how important these relationships were when his father had two heart attacks over the span of 10 days. He said he doesn’t know how he would have gotten through this difficult period without his Prison Fellowship Academy comrades. 

Another participant at NSP added, “If we’re struggling, we have people in the same place to go to and talk. I can be open and honest with them and they aren’t going to judge me about what I say or what I’ve done in the past.”

Each academy demonstrates and practices the same six core values – community, responsibility, productivity, integrity, affirmation and restoration.

“It’s a constant reminder to focus on our piece of the pie and how to contribute,” said Danielle Arnold, Prison Fellowship Academy services coordinator at NCCW. “Just getting to know the hearts of the women in our academy allows us the opportunity to hear where they come from and where they want to go. It’s been awesome to watch these women encourage each other.”

Prison Fellowship uses Christian teachings to inspire hope in incarcerated individuals, churches and communities. While much of Prison Fellowship’s curriculum is biblically-based, the principles they teach are universal in the fact that they revolve around improving one’s self for the greater good. Participants are not required to have any Christian affiliations or any religious background.

“It’s a group of guys who took a leap of faith to unite with each other and grow spiritually with each other,” said one participant, who has been incarcerated for almost eight years, and said he hopes to see the Prison Fellowship Academy spread to hundreds of prisons throughout the country. “I really love it.”

Another NSP participant said he never had any sense of spirituality before entering the program and today marked the 246th day in a row that he read his Bible. Now, rather than using drugs or getting into fights, he is attending classes and participating in something bigger than himself.

“I hope that as a group we can change the prison mentality,” he said. “Not everyone has to be the tough guy. I want other guys to know that we can help each other through this dark period in our lives.”

Approximately 26,000 incarcerated individuals participate in Prison Fellowship classes throughout the country each month. The academies at NSP and NCCW practice pro-social attitudes and skills by employing an evidence-based curriculum. Academy learning objectives fall into five subject categories: 1) criminogenic needs; 2) relationships; 3) life skills and reentry; 4) addictions and recovery; 5) spiritual foundation.

“It’s helped me get to know myself and my problem behaviors,” said one incarcerated woman at NCCW. “I knew I needed to fix something, but I didn’t know where to start. Now all of us are going on this journey together; we’ve built a bond.”

The 12-month courses offered at NDCS facilities are broken into four quarters. Students learn material during two to three-hour classes, watch videos, hold discussions and take tests. Along with digging deep into their personal attitudes and behaviors, they also learn basic skills such as balancing a checkbook. Students are expected to hold each other accountable to complete homework and assigned journaling.

“It’s my job to offer a new way of looking at things and it’s their choice if they want to pick it up,” Arnold said. “We have some tough conversations as a community, which help students turn inward.”

Interest in the academy is apparent from the ever-growing number of applications for new students. After the first NDCS cohorts finish from the program, staff members hope to see the academy continue growing with graduates mentoring the next class of students. The goal is to have one or two students who excelled with the curriculum stay on the galleries as resident assistants.

“I’d like to see graduates become leaders in the facility, take ownership and instill cultural change,” Arnold said. “They can make this a place where people can flourish.”

Forbes said their data shows that the Prison Fellowship Academy really works. Recidivism rates go down when men and women stick to the program, he said. And while teachings certainly have potential to be life-changing for those going through the academy, they can also help shift day-to-day attitudes about prison as a whole.

The administration at NSP agrees, noting the academy can positively impact the culture throughout the entire institution. NSP Unit Manager Caleb Larson said he hopes the mentality displayed on the Prison Fellowship gallery will start affecting other galleries. More specifically, he hopes to notice an overall increase in respect and a decrease in defiance.

“We hope to see improvement with commitment to the program,” Larson said. “It’s a work in progress.”

Another participant agrees that NSP’s academy is a work in progress, but says most of the men on the gallery have a different mentality than some in general population. They believe in the importance of unity, they work hard and they strive to better themselves – all lessons that will all be essential upon release.

“It’s going to help when we get out,” he said. “Volunteering, putting in the work and being part of a community. I’m not going to stay stuck in the same place.”

One participant at NCCW has been incarcerated for over 18 years and is serving a life sentence. She called the Prison Fellowship Academy an “awesome program,” saying it’s giving her to the tools to help both herself and others. While she knows she will never see the outside of a facility again, she truly believes she can still make a difference in other people’s lives.

“Maybe I can help by stopping people from coming back,” she said. “When we see someone down we can help them, ask what’s going on and be there for them. Let people know they’re not alone.”