- Associated Press - Monday, May 30, 2016

ROSHARON, Texas (AP) - For a couple of hours, the maximum-security prison felt like a real church.

Daylight illuminated stained-glass windows as voices in spiritual rejoicing sent up hymn after celebratory hymn honoring 33 new pastors in black graduation caps and gowns in the chapel’s sanctuary.

Under a towering white cross, there were sermons, handshakes, hugs and thunderous applause. Joyful pride spilled down mothers’ cheeks as the graduates filed down the aisle out of the room, clutching diplomas and grinning ear to ear.

Beneath those caps and gowns were the prison whites of men whose criminal transgressions landed them behind bars for decades. Outside the chapel walls were the concertina wire and pickets manned by armed guards at the Darrington Unit, one of the toughest prisons in Texas.

The inmates were the second graduating class from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s seminary program. On a recent Monday afternoon, after four years of studies, the men received bachelor’s degrees in biblical studies from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Now, they will be divided into teams and assigned to one of Texas’ 109 prison units, where they will minister to other inmates. Their aim: to help those who will soon be released find reconciliation and rehabilitation through faith, The Dallas Morning News (https://bit.ly/27RPUnK) reported.

“I want to commission you today to be prophets of hope,” seminary President Paige Patterson told the men, most of whom are serving sentences of at least 25 years.

Texas began its inmate seminary program more than five years ago. The plan sprouted in 2010 when then-Sen. Dan Patrick, a Republican from Houston and devout Christian, introduced longtime Democratic Sen. John Whitmire, chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, to a similar program at Louisiana’s Angola prison. The seminary program there had helped reduce violence at one of the nation’s most dangerous prisons.

They encouraged the criminal justice department to begin a program that would help not only the inmates who participate in the religious studies but also potentially hundreds of others who would benefit from the ministry of those men. Both Whitmire and Patrick, who is now lieutenant governor, attended the recent ceremony and spoke to the graduates.

“Maybe the next great revival is starting in our prisons,” Patrick said. “The only way we can change the hearts of men is through the power of Jesus Christ.”

John Montana Jr., serving a 30-year sentence for injury to a child, said he was saved after coming to prison in 2009 and decided he wanted to join the seminary program. But he hadn’t completed high school and could read only at a third-grade level. To apply, he worked for nearly a year to earn his GED and improve his reading skills.

During the graduation ceremony, Montana stepped up to the microphone in the sanctuary with a bright blue guitar strapped around his neck. He sang a country anthem that he and another seminary graduate wrote called “More Than Conquerors.”

“We are more than conquerors in Christ Jesus our king,” he sang. “Whatever we face, we won’t give up, and if we fall, we’ll get back up.”

Montana, who was 19 when he committed his crime and is now 29, will head to the Clemens Unit in Brazoria, home of the prison’s youthful offender program for inmates younger than 18.

“I’m really excited about it,” he said. Montana said he hopes to help younger inmates learn that they, too, are more than conquerors, that with faith their life can be more than what it has been.

“They’re not necessarily defined by their crime and their past,” he said.

Terry Hall, a graduate who is serving 25 years for an aggravated robbery in 2009, already had bachelor’s and master’s degrees when he came to prison.

“This degree is by far the most rewarding,” he said. Before joining the program, Hall said, he had lost hope and was searching for a purpose in life. With his degree and new job ministering to others, he’s found it.

“There’s a lot of folks who need help, who need the word of God to help them prepare,” Hall said.

More than 180 inmates are enrolled in the four-year degree program. It costs about $300,000 a year to run the program, and the Heart of Texas Foundation, a nonprofit that supports prison ministry efforts, foots the bill.

Thirty-three inmates who graduated in 2015, the first class of field ministers, are already distributed among several units statewide, said Ben Phillips, director of the program. They perform tasks as traditional as leading Bible study and as innovative as conducting cell-by-cell visits to prisoners in solitary confinement.

Inmate ministers, Phillips said, can reach their peers in a way that chaplains and volunteer pastors cannot, because they intimately understand what it’s like to be a prisoner.

The goal of the program, Phillips said, is not only to change the lives of those who join the ministry, but to change the prison culture by spreading faith from within and creating more space for transformation and rehabilitation.

If it’s successful, he said, the program will make lives inside and outside prison safer by reducing violence and ensuring that fewer inmates commit crimes after they’re released.

“Guys get out of prison all the time,” Phillips said. “It matters what kind of people they are when they come back to our communities.”


Information from: The Dallas Morning News, https://www.dallasnews.com

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times is switching its third-party commenting system from Disqus to Spot.IM. You will need to either create an account with Spot.im or if you wish to use your Disqus account look under the Conversation for the link "Have a Disqus Account?". Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide