News Release: People, Religion and Ethics

Oct. 19,  2011

Emory Professor Honored for Work With Incarcerated Women

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When Elizabeth M. Bounds of Emory University’s Candler School of Theology followed her call, it landed her in jail—voluntarily.

Bounds, associate professor of Christian ethics at Candler, began working with prison communities in the 1980s, and since coming to Candler, she has spent more than a decade teaching incarcerated women at Metro State Prison in Atlanta.

Along with Rev. Susan Bishop, a Candler alumna who serves as a prison chaplain, Bounds developed the Certificate for Theological Studies for inmates. Atlanta Theological Association, a consortium of four Atlanta seminaries, administers the program, which allows students to teach theology classes in the prison.

Last week Bounds received a 2011 Unitas Distinguished Alumna Award from Union Theological Seminary (UTS) for her work in restorative justice, particularly teaching incarcerated women. The award recognizes alumni who have distinguished themselves in the church, academy and society. Bounds, who joined Candler in 1997, received her M.Div. and Ph.D. degrees from UTS.

“This award is well-deserved recognition of the outstanding work Liz has done to enrich the field of social ethics and improve the lives of prisoners,” says Jan Love, dean of Candler. “She is adept at guiding students as they take lessons from their classrooms and put them to work in our communities, and she has introduced many students to the idea that they can fulfill their calling in community settings.”

Bounds says that students working at the prison as part of Candler’s contextual education program learn lessons that will help them in other placements. “We’re preparing people for the realities of institutions, which any Christian in development work will face,” says Bounds. “Institutions are complicated. You learn what ministry can or can’t be when you see the reality of those challenges.”

By way of example, Bounds offers the story of students who were shocked when an inmate they knew was handcuffed and tranquilized after misbehaving. “You can’t change what the institution did in that situation,” she says.

“But you have to deal with it in relation to your own sense of ministry. What does a student say to the inmate to affirm the inmate’s integrity but also affirm the right of the institution to do what it does? You may think the system is unjust, but what if you can’t change the system? How do you help the people within it? These are all important questions for ministry.”

In addition to her prison ministry, Bounds has served as coordinator of the Initiative in Religious Practices and Practical Theology, and as both associate director and director of the Graduate Division of Religion at Emory. In addition to her role at Candler, she currently serves as a faculty member in Emory’s Center for Ethics.

Bounds is the author of “Coming Together/Coming Apart: Religion, Modernity, and Community” (1997) and coeditor of “Welfare Policy: Feminist Critiques” (1999). In addition to restorative justice and the prison system, her interests include peace-building and conflict transformation, democratic practices and civil society, feminist and liberation ethics, and transformative pedagogical practices.

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