Certificate in Theological Studies

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:

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

Currently, few educational opportunities exist in U.S. prisons that extend beyond the GED or vocational education. This 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.

In addition, 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.

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.

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 to be a life-changing, awareness-raising and theology-deepening experience.

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 valuable to their professional development.

Classes meet every Friday for the duration of the quarter. Each class is scheduled for four hours, from 7:30-11:30 a.m. (Please note: the extended instruction time accommodates the complexity of a prison day as actual class time is likely to be less than three hours). Classes are generally co-taught.

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

  • Winter Quarter: January–March (Biblical Foundations and Electives)
  • Spring Quarter: April–June (Theological Foundations and Electives)
  • Summer Quarter: July–September (Electives only)
  • Fall Quarter: October–December (Electives only)

For more information, please contact Director Shari Madkins or Dr. Elizabeth Bounds.

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.


“The theology certificate program gives me the chance to study God on my own terms. This program offers me the chance to self-reflect and learn more about myself and strengthen my relationship with God. I am learning how to write and voice my theological views. I am getting an education on a college level and working outside of my comfort zone. This class gives me a freedom that I would otherwise not have in the prison environment.”
—JC, 2012

“The theology program has shown me that hope is still alive and that I still possess the ability to prove that I am human. Labels on anyone can be notoriously misleading and unforgiving things. But no matter the label attached to me, I have the capacity and the unstoppable desire to accomplish something positive and to have a lasting impact.“
—KG, 2010

“In my five years of incarceration, I have never felt important. I have found an area of study through theology that interests me and springs forth a hope that would otherwise be dormant. Through theology, I am heard, I am a woman, a mother—a theologian, And I am proud! What better way to use my time than strengthen my spirit and my faith.”
—JC, 2012

“I never thought I had a theological voice. Nor did I think anyone would be interested in my perspective of what the Bible says. This course has helped me to develop my voice and realize that I had one.”
—CCB, 2012

“Although this program is directed at education, it also helps women gain personal recovery. Many of the course topics target women’s rights and explore the areas that often caused our very incarcerations.”
—MR, 2012

“Through this program, and the strength it has given me to ask, to look, and to try, I have found that in this darkness, the light of God within me is a light that will not go out. My light burns together with each light here, illuminating our reality as it is today. We can see the accomplishment and the sorrow, the beauty and the struggle, reflecting God’s presence with us now and always. The theological certificate program forms a community that I am blessed to be a part of. It brings us together as one body, in one world: us, our families, you, and our futures. There is no way that I could express my gratitude to everyone who makes this program possible, and to everyone who has supported and believed in me. This makes a tremendous difference in our lives and, I hope, contributes to a brighter world, where our light outshines the darkness and the silenced still speak.”
—CS, 2011

“The major realization I’ve come to over the past few months is that it is normal to question. Only in studying the theological questions and writings of others have I grown, not only to understand the Bible more, but to appreciate it in a much greater depth.”
—Student, 2009

“The most important thing that I am going to carry away from this class [Biblical Foundations] is open-mindedness. In life we tend to think of things as either black or white. This class has taught me that in the middle of black and white is grey. We don’t always have to agree with others, but at least we can give them the opportunity to explain why they believe the way that they believe. God made each and every one of us different. Therefore, we all have different belief systems. We can always learn from other people. Never deny yourself the right to learn something by trying to live in a black or white world.”
—HP, 2012

“[In the Theology program], my ‘learning switch’ was turned on. I gained a sense of how I understand. I started using the untapped potential within myself. I had chapters after chapters to read, papers to write, and stories to rewrite in my own image. The more I used my brain, challenged and exercised it, the more I learned.”
—MW, 2012

“The greatest journey I have ever taken was not a physical journey. It was a spiritual and mental journey through the theology program that has affected all aspects of my life. This journey will never end, and I’ve come to a point in my life where I’ve found out who I am, where I’m hoping to go, and what directions to take. In the theology program, I found people, my fellow students and instructors, who are on that same journey.”
—KG, 2010

“How could a one-year certificate program change a woman who spent more of her life incarcerated than free?  This program encouraged and nurtured my dreams to one day complete a four-year college program, obtain a degree, and become a chaplain. Yet the question continuously arose: how does a Muslim minister to a Jew, Jehovah’s Witness, Catholic, Buddhist or Christian, and maintain a respectful tone while speaking the universal language—GOD? This program enlightened me on how to respect ALL faith systems and allow God to use my life to bring others closer to Him. We are all worthy of redemption. Even more so, the program enabled me to challenge myself intellectually and spiritually. I received all my answers in a nutshell: to allow God to use me no matter where I am is certainly a tall order.”
—KH, Muslim student, 2010

“I tried to get rid of my anger (over racism, death of brother, abuse). But that is simply impossible. Then, I discovered that it is normal to experience anger. Just as was mentioned in the ‘Healing Power of Anger,’ it’s the healthy expression of anger that must be practiced…. [example of Jesus turning over tables]. Today, when I am wronged, my heart and mind go through a process. For I know that I cannot control the actions of another. But I can control my actions in response. Now, I fight with my mind and elevate myself primarily with the love of my heart.”
—VB, 2011

“I’ve learned that theology is not just an impractical, otherworldly subject for a few dreamy scholars. It is the discipline that wrestles with the foundational issues and decisions we all face every day—whoever you are, whatever you do, wherever you are. I learned I was already a practicing theologian, even before I began the formal study of theology. The purpose of our classes was to seek and articulate some answers to questions I had consciously or unconsciously been struggling with all of my life.”
—Student, 2010


“The road from San Jose, California, to Arrendale State Prison, Georgia, is a long and strange tale, one that cannot be explained by a series of coincidences. How I came to teach here at the prison is a deep, unprecedented mystery, one whose source lies not within my own self, but only something as wonderful and grace-filled as God’s guiding presence. The road has indeed been strange, but a classroom of new friends awaited me at the destination. For that I am eternally grateful.”
—David Ranzolin, elective instructor; MTS ’13

“The opportunity to teach literature and theology at Arrendale has been incredible. It has granted me the chance to share pieces of literature that are dear to me, and more importantly, it has afforded me the opportunity to learn from the various interpretations of students. I can honestly say that my own theological positions have been challenged and changed by my experience here, and I have my students to thank for that.”
—James Thomas, elective instructor; MTS ’13

“The robust intellectual abilities and unflinching courage the students bring to theology made me immediately aware of the intellectual limitations I carry with me as a physically free person. Make no mistake, given the opportunity and recognition, these are the women who will craft the new theologies for the church and the world!”
—Michelle Ledder, elective instructor; MDiv ’10