Inside a squat cinderblock building on the grounds of Nash Correctional Institution, 24 inmates are hunched over white plastic tables listening to James Dew explain how God is omnipotent and omniscient.
More than half of the men listening are serving life sentences for murder, armed robbery and other offenses. The rest have at least 12 years left to serve.
But Dew is not preaching to his audience as he paces the room posing questions about whether God can sin (no) or know people’s emotions (there’s disagreement, but most Christians say yes). He is teaching theology to prospective ministers.
The prisoners jotting notes, calling up documents on closed-circuit laptops or asking Dew questions of their own are earning four-year bachelor’s degrees in pastoral ministry from the College at Southeastern, the undergraduate school of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in nearby Wake Forest.
Dew’s class is part of a new niche in prison education—training inmates to become “field ministers” who serve as counselors for other inmates, lead prayers, assist prison chaplains and generally serve as a calming influence in prison yards.
Many of Dew’s students get up at 5 a.m. for devotionals, although it is not required. They attend lectures from 8:15 to 11:15, Monday through Thursday. There’s study hall in the afternoon and group study in the evenings. Each inmate gets a laptop with access to a limited online resource library.
Stepping into the gap
Decades of research show inmates who get an education have a far lower incidence of repeating criminal behavior, but of the 1.5 million people in U.S. prisons, only a tiny percentage can afford a college degree while behind bars.
Evangelical seminaries, led by Southern Baptist Convention-affiliated schools, increasingly are stepping into the gap, raising money to offer inmates free, on-site college degrees in exchange for their labor once they graduate. Inmates in 15 states can apply for such programs, and 10 more seminaries have programs in the planning stages, according to the Global Prison Seminaries Foundation, which helps set them up.
The degree awarded is different from state to state. In North Carolina, it’s a Bachelor of Arts degree in pastoral ministry; in Texas, a Bachelor of Science degree in biblical studies; and in South Carolina, an Associate of Arts degree.
Game Plan for Life, a foundation started by Hall of Fame NFL coach and NASCAR team owner Joe Gibbs, funds North Carolina’s effort, which costs nearly $300,000 a year. The Heart of Texas Foundation funds a similar program in Texas, which this year had a budget of $260,000.
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SOURCE: Baptist Standard; Religion News Service, Yonat Shimron