Prison seminary graduates can get beating with degree

Published 12:00 am Thursday, May 21, 2009

PARCHMAN (AP) — For the 28 men who were awarded their bachelor’s degree in Christian Ministry on Wednesday at a ceremony in western Mississippi, the decision to pursue higher education did not come without risks.

Some were beaten out of prison gangs or mocked by the hardened criminals they’ll soon attempt to counsel and even lead to faith.

The commencement exercise for the Class of 2009 was held at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, where razor wire and guards greeted friends and relatives of the graduates.

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With caps and gowns draped over black-and-white prison stripes, the new ministers — many of them convicted rapists and murderers — accepted their degrees knowing they would face skepticism.

‘‘The people are scared of you,’’ said the graduation speaker, Burl Cain, longtime warden at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. ‘‘Everybody’s watching you. They’re waiting for you to fail.’’ But Cain said they will be expected to help transform prison culture through their faith.

The Parchman inmates received degrees from the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. The accredited institution first began offering prison courses to Angola inmates in 1996. Provost Steve Lemke said the school is also working with correctional systems in Georgia and Florida.

The seminary program that grants undergraduate degrees to inmates is a rarity, Lemke said.

A similar program administered by Columbia International University operates in South Carolina It graduated 15 inmates in December.

Mark Early, president of Prison Fellowship, a national prison ministry, said Liberty University in Virginia, New York Theological Seminary and Mercy College are some of the institutions that provide educational services to inmates. At Sing Sing Prison in New York, where more than 100 convicts have completed the Mercy College program, Early said 45 have been released and haven’t returned to prison.

‘‘This is very effective,’’ he said.

Becoming a minister wasn’t Jerry Mettetal’s plan when he entered Parchman 20 years ago on a life sentence for killing two people, including a sheriff’s deputy.

‘‘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. In his own case, he said he was ‘‘questioned’’ by gang members when he told them he wanted to get out for the program. He wouldn’t be more specific.

The Parchman inmates research the Old and New Testaments and are taught how to preach, evangelize and counsel. Graduates hope to become ‘‘missionaries’’ and be allowed to go to other state facilities to minister to inmates.

Cain said the the ministry education program has made all the difference for the prison he runs in Louisiana, where he said acts of inmate violence decreased from 500 to 100 in a year’s time. 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?’’

He said inmate-on-inmate assaults with weapons at Angola now average fewer than 100 a year.

Violence once marked Parchman too, said Mississippi Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps.

‘‘We haven’t had a major incident since August 2007. That’s how I know what we’re doing is working,’’ Epps said.

Johnny Bley, director of Parchman’s faith-based initiative and a course instructor, said the program is funded by the Mississippi Baptist Convention so it’s not a taxpayer expense. The convention has provided more than $250,000 for the program that began in 2004.

Bley said the programs are open to individuals from all religions.

‘‘We’ve had quite a few Muslims who have gone through and graduated and they become ministers in their own faith,’’ Bley said. ‘‘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.’’

But college can be intimidating, particularly behind prison walls. Bley said some Parchman inmates haven’t been in school for decades. Others enter the program with only a general equivalency diploma. Inmates are still held to the same standards as students at the seminary’s campus in New Orleans.

‘‘Many realize that academically they are not able to continue,’’ said Bley.

Others press on, despite known consequences.

‘‘They undergo persecution in various forms because of their faith. We’ve had a lot of gang members that have put down their flags because of their new commitment to Christ. Some of those have been beaten out,’’ Bley said. ‘‘It’s a difficult decision.’’