Columbia International University, a conservative Christian school, operates a degree program in South Carolina, graduating 15 inmates in December. At New York’s Sing Sing Prison, more than 100 convicts have completed the Mercy College program, Early said. Forty-five have been released and have not returned to prison.
“This is very effective,” he said.
At the Parchman graduation, inmates draped caps and gowns over black-and-white prison stripes. The nearly two-hour commencement ceremony at the sprawling Mississippi Delta prison included guitar-heavy renditions of “Amazing Grace” and “Knocking on Heaven’s Door,” performed by the prison gospel band, L.I.F.E, an acronym for Living in Fellowship Everyday with God.
Among the graduates was Jerry Mettetal who entered Parchman 20 years ago on a life sentence for killing a sheriff’s deputy and another person.
“This will be my new job,” said Mettetal, a former member of the Simon City Royal prison gang. “I came here, and for a long time I didn’t care. God allowed something to come into this prison to show that people can change.”
James Wash, serving a life term for murder, said some inmates had to survive beatings to be released from prison gangs. When he left a gang to earn a bachelor’s degree, Wash said he was only “questioned” by the members.
Johnny Bley, director of Parchman’s faith-based initiative, said the program is funded not by taxpayers but by the Mississippi Baptist Convention, a Southern Baptist state body. The convention has provided more than $250,000 for the effort, which began in 2004. An additional $185,000 or so comes from money generated from inmates buying snacks or using the telephone, Mississippi Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps said.
Bley and Cain said the classes in Parchman and Angola are open to people from all religions.
The Parchman inmates research the Bible and are taught how to preach, evangelize and counsel. Graduates hope to become “missionaries” who can transfer to other state prisons to serve inmates there. Two Parchman prisoners already have been reassigned to the South Mississippi Correctional Facility in Leakesville, said Bley, who also headed Angola’s ministry program when it began turning out missionaries in 2002.
After the inmates become ministers, they’re treated with respect when they begin working in the other facilities, Bley said. When Angola inmates get to venture into medium security prisons, “it gets attention,” Bley said.
“They’re recognized that they have received this education and they know what they’re talking about,” he said.
Cain said the ministry education program has improved conditions for his Louisiana prison, where he said acts of inmate violence decreased from 500 to 100 in a year’s time. Cain said that in the 1970s, with 40 murders in one year at Angola, Life magazine dubbed it “the bloodiest prison in America.”
“It became a moral place,” Cain said. “I have 145 bachelor degree inmates. When you have that many preachers walking around in the prison, starting churches, how can it be violent?”
Cain said when he first started sending “missionaries” out to other prisons, the culture began changing there, too. Inmate violence dropped at Dixon Correctional Facility in Jackson, La., by 43 percent within the first six months after the missionaries arrived, Cain said.
At Angola, he raised $2 million to build churches on the 18,000-acre site, which now has six houses of worship.
Not every enrollee is a success.
Some Parchman inmates have not been in school for decades, and others enter the program with only a general equivalency diploma. Held to the same standards as any seminary student, many cannot complete the program.
Well before the inmate seminary programs, prisons have had chaplains and volunteer or church groups who offer services. But inmate evangelists have a steadier day-to-day role, since outsiders can only visit once a week or a weekend.
“What we try to do is get the men to see that this is their world for as long as they’ve been sentenced. They can make a difference in it,” Bley said.
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com