Prison Transformations: The System, the Prisoners, and Me by Stephen Chinlund ’51. Here is the story of an Episcopalian priest who is attracted to monastic life but finds a higher calling in helping the incarcerated find ways to transform their lives. In the early 60’s, he was hired at Saint Augustine’s Chapel on Henry Street, a satellite of Trinity Church. The neighborhood of the chapel, troubled by drug addiction and crime, led him to visit first Riker’s. His concern for prisoners grew and became central to his life’s work. In spite of much evidence to the contrary, Stephen maintained a firm belief that people are capable of transformation. In opposition to the harsh view that prisoners required disdain, a view prevalent among prison personnel, he maintained a fervent optimism and could point to some amazing results.
From his start as a visitor, he continued to work with the system throughout the state of New York, convincing the powerful to try new approaches. By building a program called Network, which consisted of group meetings with a simple reliable format, he provided broken individuals a vehicle to view life a new way. At the meetings, the participants were invited to relate some positive, helpful behavior, to devise a plan for how they would deal with life on the outside, and then to reflect in silence. Here, of course, Stephen was influenced by his life as a student at Friends. Eventually, when the Commission of Corrections was formed to monitor prisons after the riot at Attica, Stephen was appointed by the governor to be Chairman.
Stephen discusses the issues of crime, incarceration, rehabilitation and reentry to society with the complexity and thoughtfulness they deserve. His own bent toward introspection, especially in his comparative analysis of monasteries and prisons, is engrossing. This book stands as an inspiration for those working with seemingly immovable individuals: it seems that stubborn idealism can win out.