The once-troubled, maximum-security Darrington prison south of Houston will get a new focus that state officials hope could someday make Texas' state prison system less violent: God.
In an afternoon convocation at the 1,900-convict prison, officials will inaugurate Texas' first seminary operated within a prison. The program will initially enroll 40 convicts who could eventually earn a biblical studies degree so they can minister to felons at other state prisons, according to the Austin-American Statesman.
This "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," said Brad Livingston, executive director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which operates the state's corrections system.
Unlike most current prison rehabilitation programs, the initiative is not designed for convicts who are about to be released or paroled. Instead, its participants are serving long sentences, most for violent crimes, and most will be behind bars for many additional years -- if not the rest of their lives
All participants in the nondenominational program are volunteers, officials said. The cost to taxpayers: zero. Private grants and donations will pay all expenses of the seminary, which is patterned after a highly acclaimed minister-training program in Louisiana, officials said, according to the Statesman.
Started by students in Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary's Darrington extension program, these Bible studies contain both Southwestern students as well as inmates from the general population.
They represent the growing culture change within the Texas penal system anticipated by seminary administrators, program organizers, TDCJ leadership, and lawmakers. These leaders gathered with inmate students at a recent chapel service to celebrate the start of a new semester and to welcome the third class of students into a program that is already changing lives, according to SBTS.
"This is a true partnership and one that we value tremendously," TDCJ executive director Brad Livingston said at the chapel service. "Now we're moving into the third year. We already have a lot of success behind us, and I know we have future success in front of us as well."
In 2011, Southwestern Seminary launched undergraduate classes in Darrington, offering a Bachelor of Science in Biblical Studies to 40 inmates. An additional class of students has been added each year since, and the current number of enrolled students stands at 114, with the first class expected to graduate in May 2015.
The Heart of Texas Foundation has been asked to serve as the facilitator in bringing the first Seminary Bible College to Texas. Consequently we have been working closely with Senior Warden Burl Cain of the Louisiana State Pententiary, who began a landmark Seminary program over 10 years ago, according to heartoftexasfoundation.org.
The Southwestern Seminary officials, including President Paige Patterson, Provost/Executive Vice President Dr. Craig Blaising and Houston Campus Dean Dr. Denny Autrey, have agreed to support the new Campus with their full accredited curriculum. Their professors will teach the 4-year classes within the program.