Article Jun 12, 2015

From prison inmates to "agents of mercy"

Robed in caps and gowns over their white prison uniforms, 33 inmates in Texas’ maximum security Darrington Prison Unit made history May 9 as they received bachelor’s degrees from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, becoming the inaugural graduating class of the state’s first seminary prison program.

“I’m overwhelmed at what God has done,” Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said during the ceremony inside the prison’s chapel. “Only God could do this.”

Patrick served on the Senate Criminal Justice Committee prior to being elected Lt. Gov. last fall. He and Senator John Whitmire, who chairs the committee, were the legislative heads behind the creation of the program, which began in fall 2011. Each year since, a new class of 40 students has been added to the program, and the current number of enrolled students stands at 114.

Looking at the graduates, most of whom will be deployed in groups of four or five to assist chaplains and minister in six other state prison units, Patrick called them "prison apostles" and charged them to “be models and examples of what Christ can do in [people's lives] if they will give their [lives] to him.”

This summer, approximately two-thirds of the graduates will be transferred to six maximum security facilities in Huntsville and Tennessee Colony to reproduce the ministries—and the radical changes—that have been witnessed in Darrington. The rest will remain at Darrington to mentor underclassemen in the program.

In a press conference, May 7, Whitmire described the remarkable change in culture at the Darrington Unit over the past four years as a result of the program. "When we started this, (Darrington) was one of our toughest, problematic units, and I'm here today to announce that it's now one of our best."

During the graduation, Whitmire, who has served in the Texas Senate for 30 years, recounted the history of the program. “I have scores of programs that I've worked in," he said, citing drug and alcohol programs, procedures for pregnant female inmates and other major initiatives to clean up the prison system and rehabilitate inmates. "But … nothing is more impressive and moving than to be a part of this program. … I'm a better man, a better senator, and a better Christian because I'm here participating in this program.”

Whitmire said the seminary program demonstrates that Texas is “tough on crime” but also “smart on crime.” He told graduates that he plans to use their success in changing prison culture to argue for changes in the state's guidelines regarding consideration of parole, which is largely based on the nature of the crime committed.

"I know up to this point that you are demonstrating that you are a good risk for society," Whitmire told graduates. "You're going to leave here and minister at the other units and turn lives around and save lives from crimes. I'm going to make your case that in a few years, if you continue to turn people around and behave like I know you will, work with the wardens where you are sent, and are responsible for your families, I'm going to continue to work in Austin and say, 'Okay, the nature of the crime is important, but there are other factors. You've got to give my ministers the chance after they've saved souls in other prisons to save souls on the streets of Houston.'"

Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDJC) Executive Director Brad Livingston challenged graduates to take what they have learned and apply it to the ministries they will have in the prison.

"What you've accomplished is extraordinary, but it's just the beginning," Livingston said. "As you go out into these units, rely on each other, support each other, but rely ultimately on God. You will be an inspiration to others. You will allow God to work through you to reach hundreds and thousands of others.

"Before you know it, you will have peers in every one of our units across the state. Imagine the profound impact that God will have through you and others that follow you. I couldn't be more proud of you."

Just before graduates walked across the stage to receive their diplomas, Southwestern Seminary President Paige Patterson gave a final charge to "his children" from Micah 6:8. Patterson pointed to the graduates' academic achievements in the strenuous, 125-hour degree and said their education could be a "stepping stone to greatness," but it would only be so if they were "agents of mercy … (who) walk humbly with God."

"You have done a great deal to educate the mind," Patterson said, "but this program is a little different, isn't it? Because the program has not just been about the mind; it's been about the heart. And, oh, how you've done so unbelievably [well]. I thank God for every one of you today."

Brandon Warren, who has served as the program’s administrative assistant from its beginning in 2011, is also a Master of Divinity student at Southwestern’s Houston campus. Warren is not unfamiliar with prison, having served eight years at a different facility before his release a number of years ago. Like many of the men in the Darrington program, he found faith in Christ while in prison. Before serving at the Darrington program, he wrote theologically rich correspondence courses on basic Christian doctrines for use in prisons across the state. At Darrington, Warren oversees students' coursework, grades papers, assists professors and serves as a liaison between the school and the prison.

As a way to honor the men in the Darrington program, with whom he has built strong friendships, Warren delayed his graduation from Southwestern and received permission to receive his master’s degree at the prison graduation ceremony. As he walked across the stage, the chapel erupted in applause.

Attended by state dignitaries, friends and family of the graduates, seminary faculty, and friends of the Heart of Texas Foundation, the graduation was a celebration of what many described as a miracle. The vision for such a program came from Grove Norwood, executive director of the Heart of Texas Foundation, who had experienced a similar program by New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary at Louisiana’s Angola Prison. He gained the support of Senators Patrick and Whitmire, who visited Angola to see if it could be reproduced in Texas.                                                                                           

Norwood and the Heart of Texas Foundation have been the primary fundraisers of the entirely privately funded program, which uses no tax payer dollars. The funds raised have gone to support educational materials, computers, books for the prison’s seminary library and other program needs. Other major contributors to the budget have been Southwestern Seminary and the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, who initially gave a $116,200 grant in 2011 to provide library books, classroom furniture, technology and half of the ongoing costs for professors’ salaries and travel expenses for the first two years.

For more information on the Darrington seminary program, visit swbts.edu/darrington.

This was originally published here.

ERLC2018