State

In four years these prisoners could be pastors. But that won’t get them out of prison.

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

A long prison sentence gives a man plenty of time to think, and the state corrections system has decided to help some of its long-term inmates put their thoughts to good use.

With a convocation service Monday morning at Nash Correctional Institution, the N.C. Division of Adult Correction and Juvenile Justice launched a four-year program for inmates who want a bachelor’s degree in pastoral ministry with a secondary emphasis in counseling and psychology. After graduation, they’ll counsel other inmates.

“It’s a way for them to make their lives count for something,” said Seth Bible, an ethics instructor and head of prison programs for Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, which will provide the same instruction for the Nash inmates as it does for regular students at its Wake Forest campus.

The North Carolina Field Ministry Program will work with 30 inmates each year at Nash Correctional in Nashville. It’s a partnership between the state prisons, the seminary and Game Plan for Life, a nonprofit foundation funded by Mocksville native Joe Gibbs, a philanthropist, former Washington Redskins head coach and owner of a championship NASCAR racing team based in Mooresville.

Gibbs’ nonprofit is providing all the start-up money for the program. Eventually, Bible said, organizers hope to establish an endowment that will keep the effort going in perpetuity, and possibly allow it to expand to N.C. Correctional Institution for Women.

Gibbs could not immediately be reached for comment.

Gibbs has sponsored a prison ministry through Game Plan for Life, founded in 2009, and wanted to add a college degree program in North Carolina modeled on ones operated by seminaries through prisons in Texas, Louisiana and West Virginia. Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary had wanted to do so too, Bible said.

“We see our mission as going into the darkest and hardest and most unreached places in the world to try to help tell the story of Christ and to change hearts and minds for the kingdom of God,” he said. The seminary’s goals meshed with Gibbs’ goals for Game Plan for Life.

“He had been working in various other ways inside the prison, and was really moved by what he saw,” Bible said.

While many people see prison only as a tool for punishment, Bible said, “At institutions like ours that are unapologetically Christian, we know that God is a god of grace, and despite our worst actions at times, God’s grace intercedes in such a way that people who have committed the worst crimes you can imagine can authentically be changed. And if given the opportunity, they can live a life that has a positive outcome from that point forward. A program like this really builds on that concept.”

I think the common denominator is that these guys want to make their time in prison count for something that is bigger than themselves.

Seth Bible, an ethics instructor and head of prison programs for Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary

Once the state agreed to introduce the program – which appears to be the first four-year accredited degree program N.C. prisons have ever offered – Nash Correctional was chosen because of its size and because it’s within an hour’s drive of the seminary in Wake Forest. Nash is a medium-security prison with about 650 inmates.

Its proximity will make it easier on instructors who will be at the prison four days a week, providing the same classroom instruction and course offerings to students who will have to take the same 126 course hours and meet the same academic requirements as their unincarcerated counterparts at the seminary. Courses include history, English literature, composition, communication, Biblical Hebrew and Greek, college-level algebra, Christian theology, psychology, ethics, and counseling and ministry.

Bible said the school and the prisons recruited students from the 20 correctional units with the highest number of eligible inmates. To enroll, students must: have a high school diploma or a GED; have at least 15 years remaining on their prison sentence; be in the regular prison population; not be sexual offenders or sexual victims; be at least 21 years old; and not have had a prison infraction in the 12 months before their application is considered.

Though adherence to a religious faith is not required, Bible said, in the inaugural class, “All of them are motivated in some way by their faith tradition.” The class of 2021 includes Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, Rastafarians and others, he said.

Once selected for the program, inmates must relocate to Nash Correctional to attend classes. After they complete their studies, graduates will be placed in other prisons around the state to serve as pastoral counselors to other inmates, augmenting the work of prison chaplains whose numbers were cut a decade ago by state legislators to save money, said Jerry Higgins, prison spokesman.

Bible said many of the inmates are serving life sentences, and part of their job will be counseling inmates who at some point will leave prison and return to the community.

“So essentially you’re making a difference from the inside out, rather than the outside in, which is what most traditional prison ministries do,” Bible said.

Many of the inmates who applied for the degree program are serving life sentences. But Bible, who worked with prison officials and others to select the inaugural class, said that in interviews, he never asked what crimes the inmates had committed. They were required to write essays about why they wanted to participate.

“Why they are there is not a factor,” Bible said. “I wanted it to be based on their conduct and their character since they were incarcerated rather than what they did to get there.”

Bible said that for many of the inmates in the Field Ministry Program, attending college is an opportunity that would have been out of reach outside prison.

“But most of them are more focused on the opportunity they have now,” he said. “I think the common denominator is that these guys want to make their time in prison count for something that is bigger than themselves. Something that will last beyond their time in prison.”

Martha Quillin: 919-829-8989, @MarthaQuillin

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