- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 5, 2006

HAGERSTOWN, Md. (AP) — Eight inmates at the medium-security Maryland Correctional Training Center have graduated to the pulpit.

They are the first in the state to earn Master of Divinity degrees behind bars through a privately funded, three-year program aimed at supplementing the work done by chaplains who live outside the prison walls.

Although some of the graduates are scheduled for release as early as this year, the program’s director is grateful for those with years left on their sentences.

“My goal is not to prepare them to get out of prison,” the Rev. John Bayles of Rockville told the Frederick News-Post. “My goal was to go and enhance the ministry that’s there.”

Covenant Theological Seminary, a Tallahassee, Fla., school with a Maryland branch, runs the Prison-to-Pulpit master’s program, which is funded by donations. The program is self-directed with regular supervision by seminary staff, who prepare plans, grade papers and give periodic lectures and seminars.

MCTC Acting Warden Paul O’Flaherty said inmates deserve credit for bettering themselves behind bars.

“There’s a legitimate motivation for men and women inside prison to improve themselves,” he said.

Mr. Bayles said the graduates who remain at the prison long enough will help teach a Scripture and theology program in the fall for more than 100 other inmates.

The majority of the 30 inmates who started the master’s program three years ago but who have not graduated will continue study, he said. Some have been transferred to other institutions but continue their independent study.

Mr. Bayles said he and the Rev. Jerold Banks, chaplain at MCTC, have been asked to start the program at other state prisons, but they lack the funds to take it beyond Hagerstown.

Mr. Banks, of Frederick, said the intensive course work helps participants help other inmates.

“They see things in Scripture that they didn’t see in regular Bible study. It starts the process of transformation. They hunger more for insight,” he said.

Recent graduates included Bernard Williams Jr., 36, of Annapolis, who was locked up for an armed robbery conviction in 1999 and won’t be released before 2008.

In his turn to speak during the ceremony, Mr. Williams said he plans to pursue ministry when he leaves prison.

“I plan on being used by God wherever I go,” he said.

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