Theology studies help take up time

A prison seminary program gives inmates a second chance.

PARCHMAN, Miss. (AP) — The graduates patted each other’s backs and nervously chatted with their families. Some sat quietly, meditating about their future, while others wept.

It could have been a scene from any of the thousands of commencement ceremonies this year. But these graduates were convicted killers, rapists and drug dealers at Mississippi’s only maximum security prison.

The Parchman inmates received bachelor’s degrees in Christian ministry from the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. The accredited Southern Baptist school first began offering prison courses in 1996 to Louisiana inmates at Angola prison. Along with expanding to Parchman, the seminary is working in Georgia and Florida prisons, said seminary provost Steve Lemke.

The path to graduation was dangerous for inmates at Parchman. Some were beaten out of prison gangs or mocked by the criminals they’ll soon attempt to counsel and lead to faith.

“The people are scared of you,” said the graduation speaker, Burl Cain, longtime warden at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, who was at Parchman for the recent event. “Everybody’s watching you. They’re waiting for you to fail.” But Cain said they will be expected to help transform prison culture through their faith.

Several religiously based schools offer educational programs in prison.

Liberty University in Virginia, New York Theological Seminary and Mercy College are among them, according to Mark Early, president of Prison Fellowship, a national prison ministry.

Columbia International University, a conservative Christian school, operates a degree program in South Carolina, graduating 15 inmates in December. At New York’s Sing Sing Prison, more than 100 convicts have completed the Mercy College program, Early said. Forty-five have been released and haven’t returned to prison.

“This is very effective,” he said.

At the Parchman graduation, inmates draped caps and gowns over black-and-white prison stripes. The nearly two-hour commencement ceremony at the sprawling Mississippi Delta prison included guitar-heavy renditions of “Amazing Grace” and “Knocking on Heaven’s Door,” performed by the prison gospel band, L.I.F.E, an acronym for Living in Fellowship Everyday with God.

“Thank you for giving us the crimes that we committed,” Thomas C. Smith prayed. “That we might be agents of change right here in this prison.”

Among the graduates was Jerry Mettetal who entered Parchman 20 years ago on a life sentence for killing a sheriff’s deputy and another person.

“This will be my new job,” said Mettetal, a former member of the Simon City Royal prison gang. “I came here and for a long time I didn’t care. God allowed something to come into this prison to show that people can change.”

James Wash, serving a life term for murder, said some inmates had to survive beatings to be released from prison gangs. When he left a gang to earn a bachelor’s degree, Wash said he was only “questioned” by the members.

Johnny Bley, director of Parchman’s faith-based initiative, said the program is funded not by taxpayers, but by the Mississippi Baptist Convention, a Southern Baptist state body.

The convention has provided more than $250,000 for the effort, which began in 2004. An additional $185,000 or so comes from money generated from inmates buying snacks or using the telephone, Mississippi Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps said.

Bley and Cain said the classes in Parchman and Angola are open to people from all religions.

The Parchman inmates research the Bible and are taught how to preach, evangelize and counsel. Graduates hope to become “missionaries” who can transfer to other state prisons to serve inmates there. Two Parchman prisoners already have been reassigned to the South Mississippi Correctional Facility in Leakesville, said Bley, who also headed Angola’s ministry program when it began turning out missionaries in 2002.

After the inmates become ministers, they’re treated with respect when they begin working in the other facilities, Bley said. When Angola inmates get to venture into medium security prisons, “it gets attention,” Bley said.

“They’re recognized that they have received this education and they know what they’re talking about,” he said.

Cain said the ministry education program has improved conditions for his Louisiana prison, where he said acts of inmate violence decreased from 500 to 100 in a year’s time. Cain said that in the 1970s, with 40 murders in one year at Angola, Life magazine dubbed it “the bloodiest prison in America.”

“It became a moral place,” Cain said. “I have 145 bachelor degree inmates. When you have that many preachers walking around in the prison, starting churches, how can it be violent?”

Cain said when he first started sending “missionaries” out to other prisons, the culture began changing there, too. Inmate violence dropped at Dixon Correctional Facility in Jackson, La., by 43 percent within the first six months after the missionaries arrived, Cain said.

At Angola, he raised $2 million to build churches on the 18,000-acre site, which now has six houses of worship.

Not every enrollee is a success.

Some Parchman inmates haven’t been in school for decades, and others enter the program with only a general equivalency diploma.

Held to the same standards as any seminary student, many cannot complete the program.

Well before the inmate seminary programs, prisons have had chaplains and volunteer or church groups who offer services. But inmate evangelists have a steadier day-to-day role, since outsiders can only visit once a week or a weekend.

“What we try to do is get the men to see that this is their world for as long as they’ve been sentenced,” Bley said. “They can make a difference in it.”