Seminarians in striped pants
Bible colleges in prisons turn inmates into ministers and missionaries to other prisoners
Life can go sideways fast.
That’s a lesson Jamie, Kristen, Bridgett, and Rachel learned the hard way. They are inmates at Central Mississippi Correctional Facility (CMCF), near Jackson. All four had rough childhoods. All four are coming to terms with their crimes, which range from drug offenses to murder. And all four are enrolled in a seminary school that launched in 2021, a four-year accredited bachelor’s degree program taught through the Leavell College of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.
Last April, the four women sat at a metal table in the prison yard with Beth Masters, the director of the seminary program. (Seminary is a term more often used to refer to a graduate program, but here it refers to the undergraduate prison Bible college.) The women had finished their first semester and were about to start their second. Before they had been accepted into the school, they each had to be interviewed by a panel of four prison administrators. Masters, a member of the panel, says she always asks each woman if she is guilty of the crime for which she was sentenced. “I’m not concerned with the answer,” Masters says. “I’m not trying to listen to the legalities.” Rather, she tries to discern the heart posture. “What is your emotional and verbal tone and inflection?”
Around the table in the yard, Jamie begins to talk about the circumstances that landed her behind bars. “My niece lost her life because I decided to go get high,” she says. Her voice breaks as she recalls the incident, and she’s unable to go on. She had grown up in the foster care system, she says, and didn’t have trustworthy adults to learn from or emulate. She wears a state-issued prison uniform: black-and-white striped pants and a starched white shirt. April is one of the windiest months in Mississippi, and Jamie’s long dark hair blows about as she speaks of a promise she made to herself years ago: “Because of the way I grew up, I swore that if I ever had kids, I would leave the streets.” When she got pregnant, she straightened up and stopped doing drugs—for a while. Then she relapsed.
Early on during her time in prison, she felt angry. “I’d never been confined inside a building and not been able to see outside or go outside,” she says.
Another inmate invited Jamie to a Bible study. Jamie had attended church on and off growing up, but she’d never opened the Bible on her own. She decided to attend simply to get out of the building. Before long, she was reading the Bible regularly, even after lights out. She’d flip to the index and look up whatever emotion she was dealing with—anger, anxiety, sadness—and turn to the corresponding Scripture references.
When she first learned of the seminary, she thought it was an intensive Bible study, so she was game. She balked when she realized it was college: “What if I fail? I’ve been out of school for a long time.” But Masters convinced her to apply. Jamie found hermeneutics, a course on interpreting Biblical text, particularly hard, but the class also turned out to be one of her favorites in the sense that she gained deeper insight into understanding Scripture.
CMCF’s program isn’t the first prison Bible college in the nation. That one started in 1996 at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, a state prison that once held the toughest reputation in the country. Burl Cain was the warden at the time. Cain says some folks from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary offered to run a volunteer program there so that inmates could get a bachelor’s degree. “I said, ‘You’ve lost your mind,’” Cain recalls. When they insisted, Cain said, he looked up to the sky and thanked God.
Cain spent over two decades working at Angola, implementing various rehabilitation programs. In 2020, he became the commissioner of the Mississippi Department of Corrections and now oversees Masters and the women’s seminary at CMCF, as well as a similar program for men at Mississippi State Penitentiary (also known as Parchman Farm).
The pioneer program at Angola held its first graduation in 2000. The prison was known for housing inmates with extra-long sentences, and it had a track record of violence. But Cain says within months of the start of the Bible college, the student-inmates began to turn the prison into a safer, more peaceful place. Incoming inmates now had a better choice, Cain says. The seminary students would greet the inmates and invite them into their care—and into a community that implemented Biblical principles instead of a prison gang that wreaked havoc and violence.
Once they have a degree, inmates can apply their new knowledge and skills in a variety of ways. Some become church planters and establish a church right on prison grounds. Others might become a preacher at one of those churches, or maybe an assistant to a prison chaplain. Still others take on the role of a Bible study leader or counselor to new inmates.
Cain says inmate-pastors are often more effective at ministry in the cell block than those from outside: “They say, ‘He feels my pain, he’s lived my life. I understand you. You understand me.’” Masters agrees. “What I’ve witnessed with my own eyes is that someone wearing striped pants can minister much more effectively to someone wearing striped pants than I ever will,” she says.
That conviction led Cain to another idea—transfer some graduates of the prison Bible college at Angola to another jail or prison, where they can become missionaries.
Ardic Fields became one of those missionaries (today, they’re called field or peer ministers). Fields graduated from the Bible college at Angola in 2010. He says when he first became incarcerated, he prayed that God would put somebody around him who could teach him about the Bible. And he told God that if He answered that prayer, he would serve Him forever. “And that day, it happened,” Fields says. That led him to the Bible college where his classes ranged from preaching and conflict management to Greek.
He also studied an overview of the Old and New Testaments, as well as immersed himself in classes that dug into specific books, such as Psalms. “It covers pretty much everything dealing with Christian ministry,” he says of the education. After graduation, he left Angola and was reassigned to a parish prison, where new inmates often start out. There, he brought the message that incarceration doesn’t mean all hope is lost, and that God values each prisoner and still has a plan for their lives. Then he was transferred to Elayn Hunt Correctional Center for medical care and continued to minister to peers in a trauma healing program. He’s now out of prison.
TODAY, MORE THAN A DOZEN Christian colleges and universities across the United States have started similar programs on prison grounds. Money for these schools most often comes from the private sector, such as funds raised from the sister college or an adoptive church. The qualifications for each program differ.
For example, to qualify for the CMCF’s women’s seminary program, the inmate must have a high-school diploma or equivalency and must not have had any rule violations for at least one year. She’s also required to complete a 13-week Experiencing God class.
According to Masters, that gives the potential student the chance to gauge interest before committing to four years. The inmate must also have 10 years or more remaining on her sentence to attend seminary. That’s because the student-inmate is expected to spend time serving as a tutor, leading a Bible study, or visiting and counseling inmates in lockdown.
Kristen is another one of the student-inmates in CMCF’s women’s seminary. She says drugs have been a problem for her from a young age. Even behind bars, she “wasn’t doing right,” either failing drug tests or passing them illegitimately. (According to Cain, people smuggle drugs into prisons in a variety of ways. For example, stuffed into objects dropped by drones over fences, brought in with truck deliveries, applied to the back of stamps, and staff breaches.) Kristen didn’t grow up going to church, and she says she never grasped what the gospel was all about. But in prison, she kept praying for God to deliver her.
She saw other inmates who were Christians and wanted the contentment they had. “God placed it on me that, Kristen, if you want Me to work with you, you got to be willing.”
Two years into serving time, God began to change her desires. The first time she honestly passed a random drug test, she pulled Masters aside to tell her the news, and the two rejoiced together. “I didn’t even know basic Bible stories when I started this class, and I’m learning as I go,” she says. When she gets out, she wants to mentor youth battling addiction.
Mount Olive Correctional Complex, a male maximum-security prison in rural West Virginia, launched Mount Olive Bible College in 2014. To get its program started, then Corrections Commissioner Jim Rubenstein asked the president of nearby Appalachian Bible College (ABC) if the school would open an additional location at the prison. ABC’s President Dan Anderson said the idea wasn’t even on his radar at the time, but after a visit to Angola to see how things worked there, he quickly got on board.
In January of 2019, 21 students became part of the first graduating class. While every graduation ceremony is precious, Anderson gets especially emotional over the first. As each man walked across the stage, Anderson noticed the dignity in his eyes as he shook each graduate’s hand and handed him the diploma. In a gown and a hat with a red tassel, their whole demeanor changed, he says. “Because all of a sudden, they were not khaki-wearing inmates, they were graduating college students.”
Running a Bible college at a prison has its challenges. ABC has been through four directors in seven years. Steve Russell, a former pastor, is the current one. He says the inmates who apply come from a wide cross section of humanity and various spiritual backgrounds. He estimates about half the students grew up with a parent or grandparent taking them to church. “Many of them would tell you, ‘It didn’t stick.’” But many had a wake-up moment after their sentencing, and that’s when their faith took root.
One of the students told Russell that as funny as it sounds, he sees his time in prison as a blessing from God. If he weren’t behind bars, he suspects he’d be dead.
Russell acknowledges some of the inmates apply to the college because it’ll look good on their record, but most of the students genuinely want to be there.
“Nobody is forced to be in Mount Olive Bible College, and that gives them a little bit of an initiative that you probably don’t get in some other [mandatory prison] programs,” he says. The bulk of his students are between 40 and 55, but he has had students as old as 70 and as young as 27.
Russell says he tries to give student-inmates tools to live differently when they get out. One of those tools comes from Romans 12 and 13: learning how to accept the authority that’s over you. That leads to some interesting discussions, Russell says, especially when it comes to inmates respecting corrections officers. He teaches that everybody—prisoner or not—is under authority of some sort, from God’s commandments down to obeying traffic laws.
DINO IS ONE OF RUSSELL’S former students that won’t be getting out. He has been sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Before his current sentence, he’d been to prison before—and didn’t want to go back. Still, he pursued a life that revolved around a cocaine addiction, which led to armed robberies and other crimes. He decided that when the police caught up with him, he’d shoot himself with his gun. But the night before his arrest, he sold his gun for cocaine, so he used a knife instead.
“Cut myself from my belly button all the way up, broke my breastbone apart,” Dino said. He was 35. At the hospital, he thanked the surgeon for saving his life. “I didn’t really want to die. I just didn’t want to live. I didn’t want to go back to prison for the rest of my life,” he says. The doctor told Dino it was a miracle he was alive—and to thank God.
Dino took those words to heart. In prison, he made a public confession of his faith and was baptized. Now, he says, he acknowledges God before moving forward with actions and decisions. “I stop and pray about it, and ask God to lead, guide, and direct my life in this situation.” A graduate of Mount Olive Bible College, he has plans to transfer to North Central Regional Jail to be a peer mentor.
He says when outsiders come to the prison to learn about Mount Olive Bible College, they tend to ask a common question: Why should a prison have a Bible college? Why not use the resources to support colleges and universities in the free world?
Dino has an answer. He might not be getting out of prison, but many inmates will. He asks questioners to imagine a former inmate renting a house next to their house.
“Would you rather a man come there that just went to Bible college to try to change his life and to praise God, or would you rather a convicted murderer that hates the world move in next door to you?”
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