ROSHARON—At 7 p.m. every Tuesday, a buzz fills living quarters at the Darrington prison unit—a maximum-security unit in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice—as more than 200 inmates discuss the Bible and pray for one another.
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 a growing culture change within the Texas penal system anticipated by seminary administrators, program organizers, correctional system leaders and lawmakers. These leaders gathered with inmate students at a recent chapel service to celebrate the start of a new semester and welcome the third class of students into a program that already is changing lives.
“This is a true partnership and one that we value tremendously,” TDCJ Executive Director Brad Livingston said at the chapel service. “We already have a lot of success behind us, and I know we have future success in front of us as well.”
Launched in 2011
In 2011, Southwestern Seminary launched undergraduate classes in Darrington, offering a bachelor of science in biblical studies program for 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.
“Very clearly, it’s a program designed to change lives so that offenders who one day are released do not come back,” Livingston said. “In addition to that, the real unique component to this is so that they can minister to other offenders while they’re here within the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. It’s a fascinating and unique program not found in many other places, and we are committed to it.”
The privately funded program was modeled after a similar one led by New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary at Angola Prison in Louisiana.
Texas State Sen. John Whitmire, chair of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, visited Angola four years ago and was impressed by the impact the program had on inmates and the culture within the prison. He returned to Austin convinced the program could be duplicated in Texas.
Whitmire addressed students during the recent chapel service, challenging them to continue to work hard.
Go out and minister
“Juniors, guess what—we are already talking about when you graduate in the class of 2015, the plan is for you to go and minister to other inmates, often younger inmates who will be released sooner than later,” he said.
“You know when you got into this program that it is largely not to minister to the free world; you’re assignment—and you’re already doing it, I understand, in your cell blocks—you’re going to change the culture of this system. It’s already happening in Darrington.
“Gentleman, I need your help. The other inmates, approximately 150,000 at 109 locations this afternoon, need your help. They’re looking to you for leadership.
“We are out of space already. We met earlier this afternoon about how we can turn the gymnasium into classrooms. We are ready to receive approximately 40 more students. The Lord is going to use you to carry his message and change the whole penal system of the state of Texas.”