Twenty-four men wearing black caps and robes walked across the stage at Nash Correctional Gymnasium on December 15 to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree in pastoral ministry.
They shook hands with Danny Akin, president of College at Southeastern, the undergraduate school of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, and posed for a photographer.
For these men, about half of whom will spend the rest of their lives in prison without the possibility of parole, the walk to the prison scene, about 80 kilometers east of Raleigh, was the highlight of their life behind bars. .
They are among the first class of inmates to graduate from a four-year accredited school and have spent long hours studying Hebrew, Greek, theology, counseling, and the history of ideas.
The 24 inmates all graduated with honors; three of the men had a perfect grade point average of 4.0. Now they will deploy to the state’s 55 prisons to serve the remainder of their sentences serving other inmates.
“I can tell you from the bottom of my heart that I have never been so proud of the graduates I have had the joy of chairing,” one exuberant Akin said in his graduation speech, noting that he was ” honored beyond words “to have his name inscribed on their diplomas.
The graduation marks a first for the North Carolina prison system, which to date offers no other accredited in-person licensing programs for some 30,000 state prisoners. But the curriculum is part of an emerging movement by evangelical seminaries, colleges and universities to rehabilitate prisoners through education.
There are at least 17 evangelical schools offering 23 study programs in prisons across the country, according to the Prison Seminary Foundation, a Christian nonprofit organization that supports such efforts.
In most of them, seminary professors teach in person and online to inmates who are at least eight years old to serve. (Southeastern’s program requires inmates who apply for the program to have at least 12 years of incarceration so that they can complete their education and gain experience as field ministers.)
At a time when some conservative evangelicals compare “social justice” to a postmodern ideology incompatible with the Bible, the push for prison reform through education is slowly taking hold.
“It could very well be a model for post-secondary higher education in prison,” said Julie Jailall, superintendent of prison education in the state’s Department of Public Security. “It meets all expectations of what an education program in prison should be. “
Jailall noted that the program’s 80% completion rate was a particularly satisfying result. The inaugural class consisted of 30 men; three have dropped out and three more will graduate with next year’s cohort. If they do, the completion rate will drop to 90%.
In their new positions as field ministers, men will not be expected to preach or convert other inmates to Christianity. The prison system cannot promote one faith over others, Jailall said. But they will be expected to counsel and mentor inmates and encourage them to seek opportunities for self-improvement. Some will also co-teach a course called “Thinking for Change,” a cognitive-behavioral program developed by the National Institute of Corrections. The efforts are aimed at creating a calmer prison environment and reducing violence.
For their efforts, inmates will earn $ 1 per day.
“I came out of myself”
Kirston Marshall Angell, a 32-year-old inmate who graduated summa cum laude, said he was “ecstatic” and happy to go to a maximum security prison in the western part of the state where he is expected to work with new inmates, ages 18-25, adjusting to life imprisonment for the first time.
“I got too big,” said Angell, who is serving a 40-year sentence for second degree murder. “I learned to put myself aside and favor others. This is what this program called us to do.
Angel’s education, along with that of his classmates, was funded by a grant from Game Plan for Life, a Christian ministry founded by the former NFL football coach and current owner of the auto racing Joe Gibbs, who partnered with College at Southeastern to launch the curriculum.
It costs Southeastern $ 500,000 a year to run the prison program. The college has also secured additional funding from the Sunshine Lady Foundation and the North Carolina Baptist State Convention, said Seth Bible, director of the prison program and assistant professor of ethics and the history of ideas at Southeastern.
The support of these donors and others is essential to the program, he said.
“I ask on the first day, ‘How many of you never thought you had the chance to get a four-year college degree?’ Said Bible. “Without fail, for four consecutive years, 90% of people in class will raise their hands. They say they didn’t have a strong parental influence or that they were influenced by drugs or gangs and that no one ever believed in them, or that they never believed in themselves .
The opportunity, he said, can give inmates a new perspective. “The moment you start telling someone that they are valuable, first in the eyes of God and also in your eyes. And then you tell them, not only do I think you are valuable, but the people who support this program think you are valuable – that in itself is transformative.
Prison education is expected to receive a big boost in June 2023, when inmates of many federal and state prisons will be eligible for Pell Grants for College Education. In 2020, Congress lifted the ban on federal financial assistance to prisoners that had been in place since 1994.
Ten schools in North Carolina recently formed a Prison Education Collaborative to begin thinking about ways to increase the number and variety of curriculum in prisons. Campbell University plans to give two dozen inmates a Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Science in Communication Studies with a minor in substance abuse in 2023.
“Sweep the country”
But for now, evangelical programs are the most prevalent, especially in the southern United States, where evangelicals are dominant. Southeastern recently started a similar program at a women’s prison in Raleigh.
“It’s sweeping the country,” said Denny Autrey, director of operations for the Prison Seminaries Foundation. “More and more prison guards and managers are looking for ways to turn the tide of crime inside and help these guys when they go out so they don’t come back. It is an educational program that has an impact on the heart and the mind. “
Few of these educational programs address issues associated with prison status, such as racial disparities or how the justice system disproportionately punishes people who are poor, mentally ill and addicted to drugs. The United States has the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world.
The School of Restorative Arts at North Park Theological Seminary is a program that offers a Masters in Restorative Justice Department. The program, held in two Illinois prisons (one for men and one for women), includes courses in conflict de-escalation, race relations, trauma, healing and restorative justice. Its faculty is also campaigning for the release of students and the abolition of prisons more generally.
“Many programs train people to be missionaries from within, but they don’t stand up for their freedom,” said Michelle Clifton-Soderstrom, program director and dean of the North Park seminary. “We are not in that state of mind. We recognize that there are better ways to deal with violence and mass incarceration. “
At the graduation ceremony in North Carolina, which was followed by a catered lunch for graduates and their families, leaders in the Southeast made it clear that they wanted graduates to be “ambassadors.” of Christ, ”in the words of Joe Gibbs and Danny Akin at the graduation ceremony. .
“Light of Jesus that changes life”
Akin reiterated that Southeastern is a seminary whose main purpose is to spread the faith.
Addressing the graduates, Akin said, “You can bring the light of the life-changing gospel of Jesus Christ to those of value, the men for whom Christ died,” said Akin.
Loren Hammonds, a 43-year-old inmate serving a life sentence without parole, said that was exactly what he hoped to do. Hammonds, who held his mother’s hand as he sat with his parents shortly after graduation, said he would be sent to a hospice ward at a jail 40 miles from Charlotte where he will offer comfort and companionship to terminally ill men who are spending their last days in a cell block.
“I want to give them hope,” he said, “and present the gospel to them”.