Certificate in Theological Studies for Incarcerated Women

A collaborative project of the Atlanta Theological Association (ATA) and Arrendale State Prison’s Chaplaincy Department, the Certificate in Theological Studies (CTS) is a yearlong program of theological education for incarcerated women, with classes designed and taught by graduate students and faculty from four ATA schools: Candler School of Theology, McAfee School of Theology at Mercer University, the Interdenominational Theological Center and Columbia Theological Seminary.

The CTS program was started in 2009 at Metro State Prison outside Atlanta by Candler’s Elizabeth Bounds, associate professor of Christian ethics, and Metro State Prison chaplain Rev. Susan Bishop. When Metro State Prison closed in April 2011, the program—along with Rev. Bishop—moved to Arrendale State Prison. The CTS has been well received at both prisons, where it has established a supportive, challenging learning community. Between 15 and 20 students have enrolled each year.

The CTS program has two primary goals:

  1. To prepare incarcerated women to serve as leaders and to develop their critical academic skills through a yearlong program of quality theological education.
  2. To provide seminary and doctoral students at the four ATA schools with fulfilling teaching opportunities and formative experiences for ministry and discernment.

Why Offer a Certificate for Incarcerated Women?

 Currently, few educational opportunities exist in U.S. prisons that extend beyond the GED or vocational education. The Certificate enables incarcerated women to practice and further develop academic skills, thus keeping them mentally active and preparing them for spiritual leadership and further education upon release.

Throughout their studies, incarcerated students (1) develop critical thinking, reading and writing skills; (2) develop familiarity with basic scriptural, theological and ethical concepts; (3) and reflect on the implications of their studies for the prison context and their own vocational development.

They do this within a supportive, respectful learning community, comprised of women with diverse educational and religious backgrounds. The program and its instructors encourage questions and creative thinking; they start with the assumption that each student is already a theologian, interpreter and leader.

Former and current students attest that participation in CTS is both empowering and liberating. It helps them develop self-esteem; tolerance; and a sense accomplishment, purpose and hope. They often describe their theology classes as a “sanctuary,” where they are free to express themselves, ask questions, practice constructive dialogue and build up spiritual community. Several students have gone on to be leaders and develop ministries within the prison.

CTS also offers student-teachers from ATA-affiliated schools opportunities in theological and professional formation. Through developing their own courses and teaching in the prison context, student-teachers grow their own theologies, gain teaching experience, and develop tools for continued prison ministry and for ministry in general. All have found the Certificate program a life-changing, awareness-raising and theology-deepening experience.

Finally, interactions between incarcerated persons and seminarians build awareness of issues surrounding criminal justice and incarceration, and contribute to God’s work of reconciliation in the world.

What is the CTS?

CTS is a yearlong program of theological education for selected inmates at Arrendale State Prison. To participate, inmates must have a GED or equivalent, have had no disciplinary problems within six months, and complete an application and interview.

The curriculum is designed to help students cultivate leadership, interpretive and academic skills; articulate and understand their own theologies; and foster a supportive learning community. It requires students to successfully complete courses in Biblical foundations and theological foundations, three electives, and a capstone project. The electives, designed and taught by ATA graduate students, cover a wide variety of theological disciplines, such as Biblical studies, history, ethics, pastoral care, homiletics and feminist/womanist theology.

The students’ schedules include a study-hall period each quarter.

CTS maintains a theology library at Arrendale containing more than 2,000 books. 

Arrendale State Prison for Women

Arrendale State Prison is located in Alto, Georgia, about 65 miles north of Atlanta. It houses up to 1,630 women. Many of the women at Arrendale have experienced addiction problems and/or various forms of abuse. Most are mothers.

The Chaplaincy Department at Arrendale offers a wide variety of programs to attend to the needs of the women incarcerated there: worship, religious education, music and dance ministries, support groups, and pastoral care. 

Teaching in CTS

Students at any of the four ATA-affiliated schools (Candler, Columbia, ITC, McAfee) may apply to design and teach a 12-week course for inmates at Arrendale. Student-teachers may receive course credit from their respective schools, depending on individual arrangements. Faculty also are invited to volunteer their time to teach courses.

Student-teachers and faculty report that teaching through CTS is a profound, transformative experience and a valuable benefit to their professional development.

Classes meet every Friday for the duration of the quarter. Foundations classes last four hours; electives last about two hours. Classes and study halls are offered at the following times:

8:25 a.m.–10:25 a.m.

10:25 a.m.–11:45 a.m.

1:30 p.m.–3:30 p.m.

Courses run on the prison’s quarter system, with each quarter lasting 12 weeks:

-Winter Quarter: January–March (Biblical Foundations)

-Spring Quarter: April–June (Theological Foundations)

-Summer Quarter: July–September (Electives)

-Fall Quarter: October–December (Electives)

For more information, please contact Cathy Zappa (czappa@emory.edu) or your school’s member of the Faculty Advisory Board (see contacts).

Applications to design and teach an elective in the Summer or Fall quarters are due February 1. For an application, click here [LINK].


For more information, please contact Program Director Cathy Zappa.

Program Director
Cathy Zappa

The Faculty Advisory Board for CTS includes representatives from each school. They review and monitor the academic standards of the program and facilitate their school’s ongoing involvement.

ATA Faculty Advisory Board

Candler School of Theology
Elizabeth Bounds
Associate Professor of Christian Ethics

Columbia Theological Seminary
Elizabeth Johnson
J. Davison Philips Professor of New Testament

Interdenominational Theological Center
Beverly Wallace
Assistant Professor and Director of Ministry and Context

McAfee School of Theology
David G. Garber
Assistant Professor of Old Testament and Hebrew