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The Rev. Joyce Penfield, a chaplain at the Adult Correctional Institutions and co-founder of a spiritually focused organization that rehabilitates prisoners, spoke to a group of students in J. Walter Wilson Sunday night about her work in Rhode Island's prisons.

In an informal discussion, Penfield discussed her own personal journey and answered questions about prison life and rehabilitation.

Penfield, an Episcopalian priest, initially wanted to create a rehabilitation program through the church, but faced resistance. But unable to ignore the tragic amount of recidivism she felt was due to a lack of support systems, she joined with 12 other "spiritual people" and went directly into the facilities.

The program she runs now, known as the Blessing Way, runs classes in the prisons and helps recently released inmates land on their feet in the outside world.

"Wonderful things happen," she said, describing the transformation she observes in many of her students and the close bonds she forms with them. "People come up and give me hugs."

The group judges its success by the number of people who have completed the 90-day program, found work and remained out of prison and sober.

When one discussion participant asked whether she ever came across individuals who seemed impossible to rehabilitate, Penfield said most such cases had simply never had access to therapy and rehabilitation efforts. "No one's ever beyond help from my perspective," she said.

Penfield, who officially serves the 710 male inmates in the minimum security facility at ACI and about 245 women across all levels, emphasized the importance of these courses in addressing the abuse many inmates have experienced. As a part of the classes, inmates write about their experiences and share them with the group without the fear of being judged, Penfield said.

Though Penfield was optimistic about the inmates and her program, she was less hopeful about the prison system itself, which she stressed was created for retribution rather than correction. But she said she tries to focus on the people she works with rather than the system.

"I focus on the individual and try to help the individual become free," she said.

Penfield's visit was sponsored by the Prison Discussion Group, which was formed this fall following discussions among students involved in Space in Prisons for the Arts and Creative Expression, a program sponsored by the Swearer Center for Public Service.


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