Coronavirus Hampers Seminary Education in Prisons

ROSHARON, Texas (BP) — The 165 students earning bachelor’s degrees in biblical studies at Darrington Prison Unit in Texas can no longer attend classes, with the prison on lockdown since the presence of COVID-19 was confirmed in the facility.

But the interruption is itself a learning experience for the men, who are being trained to minister while serving time at prisons across Texas.

“It is part of God’s equipping and His sovereignty for what these men need in their hearts,” said Brenna Norwood, director of programs for the Heart of Texas Foundation, which runs the prison education program in partnership with Scarborough College of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. “This is an interruption that [God] knew was coming and He’s strengthening them; He’s growing them through this, preparing them for ministry in the midst of this.”

Two cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed at Darrington, a maximum-security facility with a population of about 2,000 men; 150 were being monitored after possible exposure to the coronavirus, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice reported April 14 on its website.

The Scarborough College Darrington Prison Extension program is among similar prison education programs offered by Southern Baptist seminaries in six states. All of the programs have been altered in some way by the pandemic.

Along with the program at Darrington, programs offered in North Carolina by Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and Louisiana by New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary continue. Programs offered by NOBTS in prisons in Florida, Georgia and Mississippi have been suspended during the pandemic.

At Nash Correctional Institution in Nashville, N.C., the 66 men enrolled in SEBTS’ seminary program have been able to continue their full academic load. Each class is divided among three separate rooms with no more than eight students per room. Desks are situated at least six feet apart and instruction is conducted online through Zoom utilizing a large television screen, according to Seth Bible, director of prison programs for SEBTS.

“What Zoom allows us to do,” Bible said, “it allows me to log in from my house and project to all three classrooms simultaneously, so I only have to do one lecture.”

Instructional opportunities in prison vary by state. NOBTS is only allowed to continue a limited number of classes at Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, La., and the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women in St. Gabriel, La. Kevin Brown, director of NOBTS’ Prison Extension Center education, said chaplains with NOBTS doctorate degrees who are considered essential prison personnel are teaching some classes, and some students are completing assignments independently.

All other NOBTS prison seminary classes have been suspended, including programs at Hardee Correctional Institution for men in Bowling Green, Fla.; the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, and the Whitworth Women’s Facility in Hartwell, Ga.

“We’re doing what we can do to keep moving, to keep the students advancing,” Brown told Baptist Press, “but this COVID thing, it’s more serious in prison than it is for you and I, because once it gets in the prison it’s not getting out. I mean, the prisoners can’t go anywhere.”

At least one Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections employee at Angola has died of COVID-19, the agency announced April 10. Prisoners who tested positive for COVID-19 but were asymptomatic were being isolated in Camp J of the prison compound. Normally, many prisoners at the facility live in open dormitories.

A Mississippi inmate with another illness was found to have also had COVID-19 after his death at Parchman, the Associated Press reported April 14.

Internet access is not allowed in the prisons served by NOBTS, which prevents instruction via Zoom and other online platforms.

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Source: Baptist Press