Most people would do anything to avoid going to prison, but Hans Hallundbaek and his wife, Katherine Vockins, go there willingly.
Hallundbaek, a certified lay pastor serving a small church in New York state, also teaches at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and Marist College in Poughkeepsie. But his real satisfaction comes from teaching inmates in New York state prisons and leading Hudson River Presbytery’s Presbytery Prison Partnership.
Vockins runs a non-profit organization called Rehabilitation Through the Arts that connects inmates with drama, music and more at five prisons, including Sing Sing Correctional Facility.
The couple did not always do this sort of work. Hallundbaek, who is from Denmark, trained as an engineer and then got involved in marketing work and ended up stationed in Japan working for an American company. He and Vockins then started their own consulting group, which they built into a large and profitable business until Hallundbaek has what his wife likes to call a “mid-life correction.”
“He had one of those epiphanies where he could no longer do commercial work and he ended up digging wells in Nicaragua and working with the homeless in the streets of New York,” she said.
“At some point, I felt there’s got to be more to life than business and basically ended up in seminary,” Hallundbaek explained.
He went to New York Theological Seminary and earned a doctorate in ministry. It was during his time at seminary that he developed his interest in prison ministry.
“I was invited to a Thanksgiving up at Sing Sing; one of the professors was teaching up there, and I said I’d be interested in checking out what a prison is all about just for the experience. I went in for a service and met with inmates and that was how I got hooked on it,” Hallundbaek said.
The seminary already had a master’s program at Sing Sing — started more than 30 years ago by a former seminary president — that graduates 15 students per year, but was planning to add a college-level program to take the place of similar programs just cut by the state. Hallundbaek got involved in that program from the start, working as both a coordinator and a teacher for 10 years, and it has since spread to five other prisons in the Hudson Valley.
At least once or twice a year, he still does four- to six-week workshops in the prison and considers it a highlight of his year.
“I love to work with the men and the women in prison. They are wonderful students because they are so anxious to learn. Typically you have people go to prison and sit for five or 10 years and they are angry and grumble and say, ‘Why did this happen to me?’ and, ‘The world is not fair’ and, ‘When do I get out?’ and that kind of thing,” Hallundbaek said. “Gradually they begin to mellow and maybe begin to realize there is another way and then get interested in education, they get interested in spirituality and in religion and in trying to change themselves and if you have those kinds of students — whether in prison or outside but certainly in the prison setting — they are wonderful students because they are so anxious to learn, anxious to improve themselves and anxious to change.”
Vockins was still working with the consulting business when Hallundbaek started in the prisons. His latest project got her attention, though.
“Because I was curious to see what was bringing my husband into prison so often, I came along to see what he found so interesting and that was the beginning,” she said.
Vockins attended a graduation ceremony and spent time talking with some of the inmates. Like her husband, she was also surprised by the people she found versus the myths and stereotypes about who is behind prison walls.
“She probably thought I was a little off my rocker when I started in prison, but after awhile she got interested, and I’m very happy with that because it’s developed into a beautiful project,” Hallundbaek said.
On that first visit, for some reason even she’s not sure about, Vockins asked the inmates if there was any theater going on in the prison. They told her no, and gradually over the next few years, she gave up the consulting business as well and formed Rehabilitation Through the Arts.
“In the beginning I didn’t really understand how the process of drama or theater can change individuals,” she said. “We called our program in the beginning ‘the theater workshop’ and the men changed the name to Rehabilitation Through the Arts about the third year in because they saw the changes that were happening.”
Hallundbaek credits RTA — which features not only theater, but music, literature and visual arts as well — for building the confidence that leads a number of inmates into the college-level and eventually master’s courses.
One of the biggest hurdles Hallundbaek says they face comes not from the inmates but from the outside, battling the perception that inmates shouldn’t have luxuries like the arts or college classes. For him and his wife, just one visit to prison made them see things differently.
“I always feel if every American visited a prison just once they would begin to at least open up their eyes,” Hallundbaeksaid, conceding that’s not realistic.
“We don’t want to face the dark side, we don’t want to confront the prisoner, and we don’t want to understand it because it’s bad and its darkness,” he explained. “On the other hand, if you turn that around and basically take the courage to engage with the system, engage with men and women in prison, it’s amazing what you find there in terms of talented people, faith-based people, people who are hungry to find answers to the big questions in life.”
There are also practical reasons for supporting the work.
According to Hallundbaek, it costs about $50,000 a year to keep a person in prison in New York state. Most prisoners are released at some point and if they come out without an education, chances are about 50 percent that they will come back. He said 75 percent of prisoners in New York state come from the inner city of New York City, neighborhoods with broken homes, drugs and no jobs; 85 percent of New York inmates are African American and Latino.
Programs like RTA and the college and master’s programs address the root cause of the problem. Inmates who get an education are far less likely to end up back in prison. Most of those go into social work and counseling and help other inmates stay out of prison. That saves everyone money, Hallundbaek said.
“The interesting thing happening now is finally our prison population is beginning to drop here. We used to have 70,000 in the New York State prison system and we’re down to 56,000 now, which is a significant decrease. Now we are beginning to close prisons, we’re closing 7 prisons this year,” Hallundbaek said. “We hope that this can gradually be an incentive for other states to take a more progressive and enlightened stance on prison issues.”
Hudson River Presbytery, where Hallundbaek works on staff part time, is in perhaps a unique situation to take such a strong interest in prison ministry — there are 14 prisons located within the bounds of the presbytery.
“When our EP came here she very quickly recognized that we may be the presbytery in the country with the most prisons in its backyard. She basically said we need to get involved in prison work and so she supports that work 100 percent,” Hallundbaek said.
Hallundbaek finds the satisfaction working in prisons that he never found in the business world.
“I always sort of say, don’t bring Jesus into prison because Jesus is there already. Go in with an open mind and meet the Jesus that is there and that Jesus will basically make you carry out a broader mission and a broader perspective of what the Christian message really is,” Hallundbaek said.
“Wherever you go to the downtrodden we basically understand what Jesus is talking about when he says to the highways and byways, your salvation lies in the outreach to those in need and therefore it becomes a very powerful Presbyterian message. I’ve seen many people we work with here in churches, it’s almost like you bring the Holy Spirit back to your church when you get involved in prison ministry. That’s what I call the hidden treasure of prison ministry.”
Toni Montgomery is a freelance writer in Statesville, NC, where she is also secretary for First Presbyterian Church.