A group of prison and jail Christian ministry volunteers from Illinois are combating the nation's skyrocketing incarceration rates and failing prisoner release programs by launching the state's first Bible college within a prison – hoping to be a model for the rest of the U.S.
Having witnessed the changed lives and positive impact from prisoners who have accepted Jesus Christ within several state prison systems, the volunteers from Willow Creek Community Church in the Chicago area are determined to stand in the gap where government cannot help, they said.
The Divine Hope Reformed Bible Seminary officially opened its doors at the Danville Correctional Center on March 10. The seminary offers a fully accredited two-year course, administered by The Miami International Theological Seminary, with plans to expand to a four-year degree program.
Students at the Danville center can also receive a four-year degree from the University of Illinois in conjunction with this degree. There are 36 prisoner-students currently enrolled.
The seminary was the vision of members of Koinonia House National Ministries, who pointed others to the phenomenal success of the Angola Prison Bible College established in the once violence-ridden Angola Prison (Louisiana State Penitentiary).
Once known as one of the "bloodiest prison in America," the Angola facility is a model for change with the help of transformed lives through Bible study.
Even though the Bible college at the Danville facility was 10 years in the making, it was only two years ago that Willow Creek members Tom Horton, and his wife, Wendy, took a delegation from the Illinois Department of Corrections to the Angola Prison.
How common is it for a prison in the U.S. to have a Bible college?
"It's not common at all," Horton told The Christian Post. "This (Divine Hope) is actually a seminary and they teach systematic theology."
He said the plan for graduating students was to place them in other prisons in Illinois as "inmate pastors."
"We're hoping to establish some churches inside the prisons," Horton said. "We'd like some outside churches to be involved as well. Also, there is talk of making the classes available by satellite to other prisons in Illinois."
Two other prisons in Illinois have already requested to either host the seminary via live or satellite method, he said. Other facilities have also expressed interest.
More than 1 in 100 adults are in prison or jail nationwide, according to a recent Vera Institute of Justice study done with the help of the Pew Center. Researchers say this trend has come at great cost to taxpayers. States' corrections spending – including prisons as well as probation and parole – has nearly quadrupled over the past two decades, making it the fastest-growing budget item after Medicaid. The state prison population has grown by more than 700 percent since the 1970s.
Horton, as well as others from the ministry, believe there is an answer to the growing problem.
"Unless you change somebody's heart you don't change that person," Horton explained. "When a heart is changed you have a new creature in Christ and the violence goes down and the disobedience goes down. It makes for a better environment for these inmates within the prison. It will change them not only when they are inside prison, but when they get out of prison."
Amazingly, some prisoners with long sentences, even life terms, describe the fact that they went to jail as a blessing, considering they were able to accept Jesus once inside.
"A lot of them will tell you that 'I'm a Christian now and I'm going to heaven. I may have a life sentence in here, but I'd rather go to heaven through prison than to hell through the streets,'" Horton said.
The recidivism rates for those that are able to leave prison are much lower for those who have become Christians while inside prison, he noted. "About 80 percent of them stay out of jail."
Willow Creek's Compassion and Justice Ministry leader Anne Rand said that by partnering with Koinonia House National Ministries they hope to see a growth in the Bible college program throughout the Illinois prison system. She said that although the ministry has key volunteers from Willow Creek who contribute to the effort, it is Koinonia's initiative and not the church's.
"We have great relationships with IDOC and the chaplains of all the programs," Rand said. "The goal throughout the year is to be in every single prison in the state of Illinois by having revival (or church) service and promoting the idea of the importance of having follow-through. Part of the follow-through could be for that facility to engage in the context of having a Bible college.
"This first year it will be interesting to see what happens – how many prison facilities within the state of Illinois will capitalize on that and want to go beyond the revival-type of meeting and consider what is going on in Danville."