For over 28 years, the New York Theological Seminary (NYTS) has been offering inmates in New York state prisons a chance to earn a master's degree in professional studies that focuses on theology and ministry, teaching them how to minister to other inmates and, upon being released, a chance to give back to their communities in constructive ways. As a result, the program has been extremely effective in helping inmates turn their lives around through a faith-based education -- and it does so without any direct financial support from the government.
At a fundraising event in New York City on Nov. 30, NYTS faculty and graduates of the program who have been released from prison met with potential donors to demonstrate the effectiveness of the program. Many of the graduates are currently working in ministry as pastors at local churches. Others are involved in faith-based programs for recently-released prisoners or working as advocates for change in the legal and prison systems.
The Rev. Darren Ferguson of the Mount Carmel Baptist Church in Far Rockaway, N.Y., is a graduate of the program. Ferguson spent 8 years and 8 months in Sing Sing for attempted murder. He admits his fatal mistake that happened nearly 25 years ago when, after a night of drinking and drugs combined with money worries, he burned the pile of eviction notices in his apartment. Blinded by intoxicants, he let the fire spread and an elderly woman living upstairs died from smoke inhalation and burns.
When Ferguson entered Sing Sing prison, he promised himself that he would not come out of prison as the same person who entered it. He credits education programs like the NYTS initiative with helping him fulfill that promise.
When asked how education changed who he was, Ferguson told The Christian Post: "For the first time in my life, I realized I was smart. I had been told I was smart when I was a kid at school, but not 'intelligent.' But I realized that I was able to hold conversations with other educated people, and that meant a lot to how I saw myself."
Through prison education programs, Ferguson was able to earn an Associates of Arts degree in paralegal studies from Bronx Community College and then a Bachelor's degree in Liberal Arts from Mercy College.
In addition to growing intellectually, Ferguson grew spiritually.
"My faith was cultivated in prison," he said, and on the recommendation of Dr. Edward Hunt, the prison chaplain at Sing Sing at the time and one of the people who helped found the program, Ferguson entered the NYTS Master's in Professional Studies (MPS) program to become a pastor. He graduated from the program in 1996 and was released from prison in 1998, fulfilling the promise he made to himself 8 years and 8 months before about leaving prison a man changed for the better. Since being released he has been honored with numerous awards for his work in the New York City community and called a "rising star in the ministry" by the Rev. Al Sharpton.
"The NYTS program affirmed a few things for me," Ferguson said in a video presentation at the event. "One is that there is a thing called 'redemption.' The other is that nobody is beyond hope and that from the worst circumstances can come some of the greatest results."
The program is not easy. It is a fully accredited master's degree program -- the only prison-based master's progrm in the country -- and students need to earn 36 credits in one intensive academic year to complete it. That requires giving up visitations during weekdays, rigorous study throughout the day, and participating in ministry inside the prison 3-4 nights a week.
According to In Trust magazine, ministry is done in coordination with anti-violence programs, HIV/AIDS education, drug treatment, and other educational programs. In addition, students complete one year of field work and pastoral counseling.
The program gives students a rigorous theological education, but it also teaches inmates how to improve their surroundings in prison. Dr. Hunt, who was pivotal in getting the program off the ground 28 years ago, told CP that inmates who complete the program get "the opportunity to further their education and venture into changing the system from within."
Graduates, once they have been released, have helped change their community, as well, and many have obtained jobs in ministry and social services. A prime example is George Chochos, who had been out of Sing Sing for only two months after an 11-year stint when he began ministry work.
While in prison, "the Lord gave to me and allowed me to know Him and acquire an education," Chochos told CP. "I went to college on the street -- but failed. Once I got into college in prison, I saw that I could excel."
Chochos obtained two bachelor degrees and an MPS while in prison, while learning how to counsel and mentor other inmates. He is now using those skills as a chaplain at Capital City Rescue Mission in Albany, N.Y., a Christian nonprofit that provides food, shelter and the gospel to the homeless.
Many of the graduates' stories are inspiring, but the effectiveness of the program is not only anecdotal. Hard numbers show that graduates of the NYTS have a much lower recidivism rate compared to other former convicts. In New York state, approximately 25 percent of inmates who get released on probation are arrested for a new crime within 3 years, according to the Sentencing Project.
In contrast, only 5 percent of NYTS graduates were arrested for a new crime as of 2006, with no arrests having been made during the last 5 years, according to Dr. Dale Irvin, president of NYTS and a professor of World Christianity. Those numbers are even more impressive when compared to the national recidivism rate, which is about 65 percent within three years, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice.
These numbers are notable not only for the fact that crime is essentially down because former prisoners do not break the law again, but money is also being saved. A Pew Center study found that reducing recidivism rates by only 10 percent would save states over $635 million a year in lower prison costs.
Education programs in general appear to be a crucial factor in lowering recidivism rates. In a 2005 study on the effect of prison education on recidivism, the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP) said: "Recidivism rates for [ex-offenders who took college classes] were, on average, 46 percent lower than ex-offenders who had not taken college classes."
The IHEP study also noted that "Successfully completing a class, or better still completing a degree, can help prisoners recognize that hard work leads to positive results. These successes also can produce changes in attitude that will be valuable after an individual is released from prison."
Students in the NYTS program have already earned a Bachelor's degree, and Irvin points out that by the time they begin their seminary studies, students have already been on the path of transformation, which has contributed to the program's extremely recidivism rate.
"Candidates who get into the program have to have already undergone significant change, prior to admission," Irvin told CP in an email, pointing out that, in addition to a Bachelor's degree, students must have a recommendation from a chaplain in the New York state prison system.
"There must already be a willingness to change on the part of the candidate coming into our program -- call it the 'call from God.' We certainly help them change, but the primary responsibility of doing so, the primary agent of change, is the individual [or as several graduates at the NYTS event have said], the individual and the higher power of God working with them. We just help that process along."
Funding for programs like the NYTS seminary program is difficult because it is faith-based education and therefore ineligible for funding from the government, Irvin said, adding that funding for all types of education of the incarcerated took a major blow in 1995 when then-Gov. George Pataki decided federal Pell grants could no longer be used for education programs in prison. As a result, many education programs in prison were ended due to lack of funding.
With so many restrictions on access to funding, the NYTS program relies strictly on foundation grants, church gifts and individual donations. Raising the $15,000 needed per student each year to cover books, administration, and faculty salaries can sometimes be difficult, Irvin said, but confirmed that NYTS and its graduates are "firmly committed to keeping the program going."