Prison Seminary Opens for Inmates to Become Ministers

Modeling its program on a prison-based seminary in Louisiana, a Texas facility has officially begun seminary instruction for inmates who want to train to become ministers.

The program, supported by Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ), Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, and the Heart of Texas Foundation, enrolled its first batch of students on Monday, Aug. 29.

The seminary, held at TDCJ's Darrington Unit in Rosharon, accepted 40 inmates for the non-denominational program.

After successfully completing the program, which takes an average of four years, inmates are awarded a Bachelors of Science degree in Biblical Studies from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Graduating prisoners were expected to eventually visit other Texas prison facilities to minister to their peers.

“The seminary program has the potential to help these men change their thought patterns, which in turn can change their lives, and the lives of everyone around them,” TDCJ Executive Director Brad Livingston said in a press release. “We are proud to be a part of this innovative program, and we expect great results."

The prison-based seminary program and its theological library were funded through various grants and donations, with a budget of about $100,000.

Emulating a similar program at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, officials were hoping to also reap similar results.

Angola has seen a 70 percent reduction in inmate violence since its program was launched in 1995 with the support of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.

"Most of us in here haven't done anything good in our lives. It's life changing. It's like there's still hope," Darrington inmate Javier Sanchez told The Associated Press.

Sanchez, serving a 45-year prison sentence for aggravated robbery, added, "I think it's amazing to watch God work here in prison."

Sanchez and his fellow students were selected from a pool of 600 applicants who expressed a desire to join the seminary.

To qualify for the program, students had to already have a high school diploma or GED, good behavioral records for at least a year, at least ten years remaining until eligibility for parole, and a genuine desire to serve other inmates.

Livingston said he believed the program would last, though it might have its hurdles.

"There will be some challenges, but I believe we've put the pieces in place for success here," he said.