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Can a Bible college in this NC prison make a difference?

Dr. Jamie Dew, the dean of The College at Southeastern in Wake Forest, leads a prayer at Nash Correctional Institution on Monday, Aug. 21, 2017.
Dr. Jamie Dew, the dean of The College at Southeastern in Wake Forest, leads a prayer at Nash Correctional Institution on Monday, Aug. 21, 2017. Ryan Guthrie, NC Department of Public Safety

Jesse Bracey’s personal testimony wasn’t about him. In between the customary inspirational speeches, Bracey used his time on stage at Nash Correctional Institution to share the stories of three fellow inmates.

Bracey had helped these men secure jobs, mentors and church communities as they got ready to leave prison — something Bracey might never get to do.

Bracey is one of 52 students pursuing a bachelor of arts in pastoral ministry while serving a sentence of 15 or more years through the North Carolina Field Minister Program.

But the purpose of this Bible college extends beyond personal development. The program empowers an often overlooked population to address the issues our prison system faces. Students are all long-term inmates who are expected to eventually serve in some role within the prison system, and it is hoped that their influence will lead to visible changes.

The hopes for this program are big, and each stakeholder at the recent convocation seems to have a slightly different reason for supporting the Bible college.

Prison officials see students as allies in a fight against recidivism. Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, which is based in Wake Forest, sees an opportunity to engage in culture change within the prison system by promoting moral rehabilitation. And the donors spoke of the personal impact the Bible college would have on the students themselves.

We need intervention in plenty of areas in the prison system. The average prison sentence in North Carolina is only three to five years, and recidivism (the rate at which people are arrested again after serving a sentence) is high. Last year was an especially violent year in our prisons. And we’re also lacking in funding for qualified prison chaplains and education.

The Field Minister Program is an accredited program of the College at Southeastern Baptist Seminary that offers inmates inside Nash Correctional the opportunity to study ministry. Students of the Bible college work through the same curriculum as any student pursuing a pastoral ministry degree, without the benefit of unlimited internet access.

The program is funded through donations and was initially sponsored entirely by Game Plan for Life, a nonprofit founded by former NFL coach and NASCAR team owner Joe Gibbs.

The Bible college is “confessional and inclusive,” meaning inmates don’t have to be Baptist, or even Christian, to become students. Seth Bible, director of prison programs for Southeastern, said that there are currently a few Catholic, Muslim and Rastafarian students, as well as students of nearly every Protestant tradition.

Recidivism

Rueben Young of the N.C. Division of Adult Correction and Juvenile Justice highlighted the program’s potential to combat recidivism. Young pointed out that helping people find jobs and housing after they leave prison decreases recidivism and helps lower taxpayers’ cost of more than $35,000 per year per inmate.

“We want to keep recidivism low,” Young told me, “ but to do that we have to give them hope that they can have a life after.”

Young noted that many inmates come from unstable situations, often with histories of abuse, poor support networks and addictions. The average prison sentence in North Carolina is three to five years, so 95 percent of inmates will be released. Many have nothing waiting for them after incarceration, and as many as 60 percent of inmates don’t have a job a year after they’re released.

The Bible college students are working to break this cycle. While in prison, the students help departing inmates find jobs, mentors and communities. Eventually, some graduates of the program will work as juvenile counselors and GED mentors, which could have a more direct impact on recidivism.

Culture change

Southeastern aims to empower the most influential individuals in any prison: the long-term inmates. “By investing in long-term inmates, you have the opportunity to affect culture from the inside out,” Bible said.

All of the students of the Bible college have 15 years or more left on their sentences, and they will be sent to prisons across the state when they graduate in order to serve other inmates.

Michael Hallett, a criminal justice professor at the University of North Florida, has researched the effect of Bible colleges inside prisons. His research on a Bible college in Texas has found that participation in these programs reduced the incidence of participant misconduct by 65 to 80 percent.

The first of the prison Bible colleges was started at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, known as Angola, in the 1990s. The goal of the Bible college in Angola was to change the culture inside the prison. Burl Cain, the warden of Angola from 1995 to 2016, has said that it was instrumental in doing so.

But Hallett said real change happens when inmates are given authority. Angola allows inmates to run their own churches. They lead their own services and religious programming, and congregations within the prison have their own chapels and take up tithes to be distributed to the poorest members of the congregations.

Bringing hope

One of the main funders for this program is Game Plan for Life, a nonprofit founded by Gibbs. In his convocation speech, Gibbs focused on the purpose the program could give to the students themselves.

“What’s the world tell me? The most important thing I can do is win races and coach football,” Gibbs said. But Gibbs doesn’t believe that his ultimate value lies in his success in sports — or that the students’ value is limited by their position as inmates. “What we’re going to leave on this earth is the influence we have on others,” Gibbs said.

Each of the students will eventually be placed in a designated role, based on their aptitudes and desires. Some will stay with the Bible college to assist the next rounds of students, and others will become juvenile mentors, GED tutors and hospice care workers. They will not replace chaplains in the prison system, but they will provide relief and assistance to the prison system’s chaplains, whose funding was cut in 2011 by the General Assembly.

It is easy to see what the opportunity to study means to these students, many of whom would not have otherwise had the chance to pursue a degree. As we were touring the classrooms, Bible asked for a testimony or two about the work. Five students stood up.

“When you show up to class on campus, you hope most of the class has skimmed the reading,” Bible told me. “Showing up here, some of these guys have read it three or four times.”

Inmates’ stories

The inmates themselves didn’t speak of the effectiveness of the program in statistics or potential. They had stories, their own and those of other inmates, which combined the hopes of the state, the donors and the educators.

Jesse Bracey told me the students are proud of the changes taking place inside Nash. Bracey’s prayer is that any effect he has on an inmate leaving prison will ripple out into the community around him, offering hope to that man’s family and friends.

Another student, Anthony Smith, said the best part of the program is “being able to extend it to the family.” Smith shared how he and his daughter have been able to connect over their studies — his in Bible college and hers in 10th grade. He says that she has become an “advocate for me and my transformation.”

One student spoke of the impact his studies had on him. “Most people don’t understand the mental, physical and spiritual burden prison places on you,” the inmate said. “You lose hope. How do you have a chance to impact others? This has shown each of us that we are not forgotten. Thank you for believing enough in us to see us as human beings. If God could do it for Moses, if God could do it for David, he can do it for us.”

Shelbi Polk is at spolk@newsobserver.com.
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