Damian Dovarganes, AP
Starting by transforming the bloodiest prison in the U.S. in 1995, faith-based prison seminaries have now spread to nine other states and are the new hope in prison rehabilitation.

Darryl Waters says he was raised by devout Christian grandparents in the quaint bayou community of Gibson, Louisiana.

In college, he abandoned what he'd been taught about morals and Christian principles and eventually adopted a life of crime. Waters doesn't go into details of what happened in 1993 that resulted in his life sentence for second-degree murder.

But a life behind prison bars has never been hopeless for Waters.

“When the cuffs were placed on my wrists, I felt that I would have a true opportunity to be free,” Waters recalled, the memory vivid in his mind.

The opportunity began when Waters rekindled his relationship with God while sitting alone in his cell in the Leon County Jail in Tallahassee, Florida. He would later be transferred to Angola Prison in Louisiana, where he took advantage of the nation’s first seminary program for inmates and underwent a complete moral transformation.

“The seminary has helped me to envision a greater purpose — not to deny adverse circumstances, but to look beyond them,” he said in a phone interview. “The seminary and my relationship in Christ helped me to have a great experience despite the prison environment or the dark side of this world.”

The seminary program, which marks its 20th anniversary this year, has also been credited for impacting the lives and environment of most inmates at Angola — notorious for its violence among inmates — where Warden Burl Cain says the number of violent incidents has decreased as much as 80 percent since the seminary accepted its first students.

Now, prison seminary programs have been adopted in 10 states, and while research isn't conclusive on impact such programs have on inmate populations, experts are hopeful that faith and education can lead other inmates like Waters down the road to change, recovery and purpose.

A godsend

Cain said he was apprehensive to be warden at what was then called the bloodiest prison in America — due to the number of inmate assaults — in 1995. But Cain believed he could have a positive influence on the prison.

“I’m a praying man and I would pray to God for wisdom,” he said. “(The seminary program) was a godsend because I didn’t figure out how to do a seminary, the seminary fell in my lap.”

While discussing how to best provide education programs to keep inmates busy, Cain recalled, a colleague suggested a seminary — or Bible college — as a possibility. Cain shared his idea and vision with administrators at the Leavell College of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, who responded by organizing an extension center at Angola.

The rigorous program requires 126 credit hours for students to attain their degree. After a competitive application process, 26 of the 49 applicants in 2014 were accepted. Classes vary from English and mathematics, to Old and New Testament surveys, to abnormal psychology.

During the past 20 years, the seminary has graduated 258 inmates from many different walks of life and religious backgrounds. During that time, prison misconduct has dropped from 1,354 incidents in 1992 to 344 in 2014.

The program is funded by private donations and costs $75,000 per year to run. According to Cain, a critical component of the program is the community volunteers. He says they contribute to lower recidivism rates, or how often someone returns to prison.

“The (involved community) was important because when (inmates) got out of jail they had to have somewhere to go,” he said. “This made it easier for the community to accept them" as having been rehabilitated.

In addition, the theological seminary has created other programs for Angola's 2,600 inmates, from counseling groups for incarcerated dads to vocational programs.

A 2007 graduate from the seminary program, Waters serves as a pastor for a prison church in Angola and he is a leader of Malachi Dads, a program that mentors incarcerated fathers about parenting from inside prison.

The power of faith

Cain says the seminary's effectiveness is due to its ability to morally rehabilitate its students who then share their faith with other inmates.

“It was pretty simple to realize that if we're going to rehabilitate a criminal, we had to teach him morality,” Cain said. “If we taught him to read and write, and skills and (a) trade, he would just be a smarter criminal.”

That morality, he said, was most effectively taught through faith.

According to experts on prison behavior, the connection between religion and rehabilitation is not a coincidence.

“Christian theology is very compatible with a pro-social, law-abiding lifestyle,” said Grant Duwe, a director of research for the Minnesota Department of Corrections. “And the faith part is important because it gives sinners hope and gets them started on this path toward changing their lives.”

Duwe is part of a research team observing seminaries at the Darrington Prison in Houston over a period of five years which just released its preliminary study in the Journal of Offender Rehabilitation in May. The study found that misconduct in the Darrington Prison decreased by one discipline per participant, that incidents of misconduct decreased by 68 percent and that recidivism fell 66 percent.

In addition to Texas and Louisiana, eight other states have adopted prison seminary programs, including California, Georgia, Illinois, Michigan, Mississippi, New Mexico, Tennessee and West Virginia.

Joshua Hays, a research associate for the Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion and a member of the research team, said he sees a lot of potential in Bible college programs like Angola's.

“If you look at the values that religious faiths instill in people: integrity, trustworthiness, accountability, personal responsibility — down the line, those are the same values that any type of prison rehabilitation program would want to foster,” Hays said.

“We think for people really serious in prisoner rehabilitation, there are a lot of resources that faith can provide to inmates. Religious programs can bolster those values, there’s a heightened motivation for the inmates and volunteers.”

However, Hays says one of the most important elements in these faith-based programs is the ability to form a new identity. By confessing past wrongdoing and determining to do better, the inmate is ready to make a new start.

“The new identity that inmates adopt often involves service to others" Hays said. "They are not merely following the law, they have something positive to contribute to their neighbors — whether in prison or post-release.”

Tom O’Connor, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Oregon, agrees. He said there is no definitive evidence that shows faith-based rehabilitation methods are more effective than non-faith-based approaches, but says a sense of meaning — whether it is faith-based or not — is the most important aspect of the rehabilitation process.

“Evidence suggests that when you integrate a person’s meaning into their programming, you get better outcomes,” he said. “They will respond better if you’re working with them through what’s meaningful to them. When you ignore that part of their life, it’s not as effective.”

The establishment of a sense of purpose and identity was crucial for the rehabilitation process of Justin Singleton, another inmate at Angola Prison serving a life sentence for second-degree murder. A 2013 graduate of the seminary, Singleton is now a pastor for another prison church group in Angola and a lead mentor at the prison's small engine repair school.

“Before I came to this place I didn’t have (an identity),” Singleton said. “When I was called to the seminary God told me that even though I was in prison serving a life sentence, my life still mattered, I still had purpose and he expected me to fulfill my purpose regardless of where I am.”

Beyond faith

O'Connor identified two major factors that predict recidivism or a return to prison after serving time: how former inmates think and who they associate with.

And faith-based programs, he says, tackle those two issues.

“Faith-based programs offer a way of thinking that is not aggressive,” O’Connor explained. “They have a huge amount to offer to counter (violent) attitudes, and they also have a huge amount to offer to counter the criminality of friends because they can integrate people into a community that is not criminal.”

Through the positive environment that faith-based programs offer, inmates are part of a supportive, nurturing environment working toward their success — a positive environment that has been extremely effective.

Across Canada, for instance, the implementation of Circles of Support and Accountability — a program of community organizations, faith-based volunteers and the Chaplaincy Services Division of Correctional Service Canada — has resulted in a 71 percent reduction in recidivism, according to a 2009 study published in Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment.

“These findings suggest that participation in CoSA is not site-specific and provides further evidence for the position that trained and guided community volunteers can and do assist in markedly improving offenders’ chances for successful reintegration,” the study stated.

Duwe, the Minnesota researcher, said the social interaction with religious volunteers is key to a successful seminary or any faith-based program. He said research suggests that programs that are solely focused on religion or biblical instruction simply produce a more pious criminal who is still prone to relapsing.

“Forming these connections with volunteers who are pro-social is a big piece in why the program is effective," he said, "and you’re unlikely to get that, or as much of it, from a program that doesn’t have that faith-based piece to it.”

The prison seminary programs can also be a source of religious volunteers who are with fellow inmates 24/7.

In Angola, for instance, seminary graduates become the teachers and moral mentors and are sent to other prisons throughout Louisiana to minister and spread the message of moral rehabilitation.

“When we deal with individuals who come from the same places as us mentally and spiritually, we’re able to deal with them accordingly because of the experiences that we had,” Singleton said. “Where we come from has been the greatest teaching, not just for us, but for those who we encounter who need to be administered to in the same context.”

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