New Christian campuses are emerging all over the nation full of students eager to learn how to minister to their peers. Showing impressive signs of growth and stability, these campuses are currently found in nineteen states with ten more states set to launch soon. Collectively producing thousands of graduates with accredited degrees from over ten Christian seminaries and universities, these graduates are leading a national movement that is transforming culture and making a difference for eternity. As the founding director of the campus in New Mexico, I observed how our first graduating class baptized over two hundred new converts to Christ the year after they graduated. Many became pastors while others worked as chaplains within hospice. Some led Gospel-centered parenting workshops while others were mentors for recovering addicts. Similar results are being reported all over the United States. Where are these Christian campuses being planted? The answer may be surprising. They are being established where God has done some of his most amazing work – behind prison walls.
The first prison seminary began at the request of Warden Burl Cain at the Louisiana State Penitentiary (also called Angola Prison). Formerly referred to as the “Alcatraz of the South,” this prison was known as one of the bloodiest prisons in America. In 1992, the prison recorded some 1,346 violent assaults. Desperately looking for something that would change the heart of the offender, Warden Cain reached out to New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary with a proposition that they establish a seminary inside the prison. The seminary knew that if it were to do this, all funds would have to be privately raised to cover the cost of tuition and textbooks. After prayer and planning, the seminary enrolled its first cohort in 1995. That same year, violent assaults dropped by over a thousand incidents.1
The effectiveness of prison seminaries in bringing about positive moral rehabilitation to inmates has been scientifically validated over and again largely due to the impressive work of Dr. Byron Johnson of Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion. Through the research of this institute, there is ample evidence that supports the drastic reduction of crime, drug and alcohol abuse, violence, and recidivism due to prison seminaries and the graduates they produce.2 Having heard Dr. Johnson share this evidence at the Prison Seminaries Foundation’s annual conference on October 7, 2021, I was personally reminded that there are few endeavors Christian colleges and seminaries can do that are as rewarding and impactful as prison Christian education.
Some may wonder why we should offer Christian higher education in prisons. Often, our view of prisons can be punitive rather than correctional. Our mentality can be that we lock offenders up and throw away the key. Such was never the view of Jesus who considered that our ministry to the incarcerated is ministry to Christ himself (Mt. 25:36-42). God loves the offender. If he did not, none of us would be saved. Under the law of God, we all stand condemned, but thanks be to God there is a paraclete, Jesus Christ the Righteous (1 Jn. 2:1), who pleads his righteousness on our behalf before the Father. This has led me all the more to embrace prison higher education.
Having had the privilege of training up incarcerated ministers since September 2015, I have come to believe the following that I hope readers of this blog will share:
First, the Gospel of Jesus Christ can change anyone. My prison classrooms are filled with offenders who have committed every type of crime imaginable. While we do not excuse or dismiss their crimes (or the people whom they have hurt), we must remember that the cross of Jesus is greater than all our sins. I have firsthand seen men who were in rival gangs surrender their lives to Christ and embrace their former enemies as brothers. I have witnessed the drug addict find freedom through the redemptive power of Christ. I have seen the families whose loved ones were murdered by the hands of one of my students find the power to forgive. This can only be attributed to the work of the Gospel. Moral rehabilitation is the outcome, but the cause is the Gospel.
Second, prison seminaries are the means through which God is bringing this Gospel transformation. While these programs are undergraduate Christian Studies programs, and not seminaries in the traditional sense, they nonetheless do an exceptional job equipping and training incarcerated students called to ministry with the tools and education needed to minister to their peers. Inmates receive the words of fellow inmates better than they do from those on the “outside.” As a prison volunteer, I know my students appreciate me as I come for a few hours each week. However, prison seminarians and pastors never leave their mission field. They are constantly around their peers, ready to minister at any given moment. More than that, their lives are on constant display to demonstrate the transforming power of the Gospel. As educators, we see the transforming power of education at work every day. This same power is at work across the nation within correctional facilities.
Third, we should support prison seminaries. The Bible is replete with stories of God working in and through prisons to impact eternity, and we see that on abundant display today within prison seminaries. While great work has been done, more is needed. There are many states without prison seminaries (for a list, visit www.prisonseminaries.org). Others, like New Mexico, have a program for men but lack the resources to start one at a women’s facility. As Christian Studies programs, the state cannot (and should not) fund these endeavors. They are dependent upon the generosity of private donors for support. Additionally, support is needed from each state’s Department of Corrections as well as the local wardens. As the ones who control opened and closed doors in prison (literally and figuratively), their support is critical to the success of Christian education in prisons. Finally, and importantly, Christian colleges and universities (from Trustees and administrators to their faculty) should lend their support for higher education in prisons. Our mission as Christian higher education institutions is wide enough to embrace teaching behind prison walls. To accomplish this, we need professors of all disciplines to teach their subjects that lead to the liberal arts degree in Christian Studies. There, I am confident, they will experience the true joys of being part of such a remarkable endeavor.
In closing, it is worth mentioning that relatively few college students will ever enter into a prison like the Lea County Correctional Facility in New Mexico or Angola Prison in Louisiana. However, they will almost certainly encounter former inmates who reenter into society. Over 600,000 individuals are released from prison every year with seventy-five percent of them returning back to prison within five years of parole. The causes of this are many;3 however, prison seminaries have been proven as one of the most effective strategies both in rehabilitating inmates while in prison as well as reducing the likelihood of their return. By belonging to an institution that supports prison Christian higher education, students can know that the Gospel transforms lives, that God is using their institution to do it, and that their communities will be safer after inmates are released. Supporting prison seminaries, thus, makes a social and spiritual impact that is felt now and will be experienced into eternity.
- Michael Hallett, Joshua Hays, Byron R. Johnson, Sung Joon Jang, and Grant Duwe, The Angola Prison Seminary: Effects of Faith-Based Ministry on Identity Transformation, Desistance, and Rehabilitation (New York: Routledge, 2017).
- Michael Hallett and Byron R. Johnson, “The New Prison Ministry Lies in Bible Education” in Christianity Today, Oct. 19, 2021; Byron R. Johnson, Michael Hallett, and Sung Joon Jang, The Restorative Prison: Essays on Inmate Peer Ministry and Prosocial Corrections (New York: Routledge, 2021).
- Melissa Li, “From Prisons to Communities: Confronting Re-Entry Challenges and Social Inequality.” In The SES Indicator, March 2018.