- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 12, 2012

NORCO, Calif. | Robert Ross‘ mother died while he was in prison for robbing a bank and he hasn’t seen his 12-year-old son since the boy was in diapers.

For all that he has lost, however, Ross says he found something far greater behind bars thanks to a college-level seminary course that trains inmates to plant churches and evangelize in poor communities upon their release.

“When I tell people that I’m grateful for the 15 years 4 months that I was sentenced to, people look at me like I’m crazy or maybe on some kind of medication, and they ask ‘Why?’ and I tell them, ‘Well, it took that for me to find out who Jesus is and really fall in love with him and let him do his work in me,’ ” he said. “Had I not been arrested, I’m sure I would be dead.”

Ross, 32, works full time as a clerk at the chapel at the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco, about an hour southeast of Los Angeles, where inmates began enrolling in the Urban Ministry Institute as an experiment four years ago. He plays keyboard and guitar during services and is considered a leader in the seminary training program that is being expanded to 18 California prisons and nearly 900 inmates, including women.

World Impact Inc. developed the seminary curriculum to target poor communities and partnered with the nonprofit group Prison Fellowship in 2008 to try teaching the rigorous, 31/2-year course behind prison walls. The partnership between the two evangelist organizations graduated 10 men last year and expects to graduate 14 more next year.

Prisons in Michigan, Florida and Colorado have also started classes.

The institute had spread to five other California prisons and about 220 inmates when wealthy Malibu real estate entrepreneur Wayne Hughes Jr. gave $2 million to the program last year. The partnership started classes at Ironwood State Prison in Blythe earlier this month and will add more prisons this fall.

Mr. Hughes, himself a devout Christian, decided to fund the institute after visiting Angola prison in Louisiana, where a similar seminary program for inmates has reduced violence dramatically, he said.

“I really think there’s a tipping point. If you can get 3 to 4 percent of the general population engaged, I think you’ll really change the culture within the prison — and when they get out, they’ll really change the culture from whence they came,” he said.

Prison officials say it’s too early to tell whether the institute reduces recidivism, but they are supporting the rollout into more than half the state’s 33 adult institutions based on anecdotal evidence that the effort making a difference, said Bill Sessa, a spokesman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. It takes three years to determine any program’s recidivism success rate.

“Any program that offers inmates an opportunity to gain some introspection and self-study, to change their attitude toward life, is a huge step toward making their lives constructive when they leave prison,” Mr. Sessa said.