Unique prison min­istry of­fers long term in­mates chance to serve

South Florida Times - - PRAYERFUL LIVING - By Hous­ton Chronicle Hous­ton Chronicle SERV­ING BE­HIND BARS:

KERI BLAKINGER

ROSHARON, Texas (AP) - Kenny Cal­li­ham sat alone in the dark of a prison cu­bi­cle when it fi­nally hit him: He couldn't live like that any­more. He needed some­thing dif­fer­ent, some­thing bet­ter.

The re­ports years of drug­ging and fight­ing had got­ten the Green­s­point man where he was, in the mid­dle of a 45-year prison sen­tence for ag­gra­vated rob­bery. He'd squan­dered a shot at pro­ba­tion, de­stroyed re­la­tion­ships with those around him and got­ten into “all the worst that prison had to of­fer.''

“I just looked at my­self and saw that ev­ery­thing I'd started on my own had crum­bled,'' he said.

But on a re­cent Mon­day, he started the process of re­build­ing.

The 36-year-old was one of 35 pris­on­ers grad­u­at­ing from the four-year sem­i­nary at Dar­ring­ton Unit, a mile­stone marked by a jail­house com­mence­ment at­tended by in­mates' fam­i­lies, high-rank­ing prison of­fi­cials and state Sen. John Whit­mire, D-Hous­ton.

“Each and ev­ery one of us to­day is wit­ness­ing a mir­a­cle,'' Whit­mire told the new grad­u­ates, black grad­u­a­tion robes hid­ing their prison whites.

With the ad­di­tion of the 2018 class, there are now 180 sem­i­nary grad­u­ates who've been sent out to do God's work as field min­is­ters at 26 pris­ons across the state, ac­cord­ing to prison spokesman Jeremy De­sel.

By 2024, there will be field min­is­ters on hand in all 104 Texas De­part­ment of Crim­i­nal Jus­tice pris­ons.

Dar­ring­ton was once known as a bad unit, plagued by vi­o­lence and un­rest. It was a place you didn't want to be sent. Now, men are vy­ing to get into the max­i­mum-se­cu­rity Bra­zo­ria County prison, com­pet­ing for a few dozen cov­eted slots in the pro­gram funded by the non­profit Heart of Texas Foundation and run by the South­west­ern Bap­tist The­o­log­i­cal Sem­i­nary, based in Fort Worth.

To qual­ify, would-be stu­dents need to have high school diplo­mas or GEDs, clean dis­ci­plinary records for the past year and at least 10 years left un­til their ear­li­est pos­si­ble re­lease dates.

That last caveat is one that makes the sem­i­nary pro­gram stand out from many other prison of­fer­ings. While vo­ca­tional pro­grams and ed­u­ca­tion typ­i­cally aim to help in­mates lead pro­duc­tive lives af­ter their re­lease, the sem­i­nary pro­gram is aimed at those who have long stretches of time left - and an in­ter­est in do­ing good works be­hind bars.

For four years they study rhetoric, Western civ­i­liza­tion, health sci­ence and the Bi­ble. They hole up in the li­brary and take full-time classes in­stead of hold­ing prison jobs, and they learn to­gether in the group­ings they'll stay in when they're even­tu­ally sent out to pris­ons across the state as grad­u­ates of the non­de­nom­i­na­tional pro­gram.

“There is a sense of com­mu­nity that de­vel­ops among the stu­dents,'' said Ben Phillips, the sem­i­nary pro­fes­sor who serves as the Dar­ring­ton Unit's pro­gram di­rec­tor. “For a great many of them, they re­ally want to seize this op­por­tu­nity and wring ev­ery ounce of value out of it.''

The Class of 2018 will fan out to units across the state in the com­ing weeks, walk­ing in as the first field min­is­ters Even though they will re­main in­car­cer­ated for lengthy sen­tences, some in­mates at a Texas prison are be­com­ing min­is­ters who serve other pris­on­ers. newly dis­patched to seven pris­ons from Huntsville to Rosharon to out­side San An­to­nio. Prison of­fi­cials say the pro­gram has been trans­for­ma­tive and be­come a model for other states, which have sent high-rank­ing cor­rec­tions of­fi­cials to look in on the Lone Star State's suc­cess.

“We're do­ing it, and we're do­ing it in ways that no other coun­try or state in the world has done it,'' said Grove Nor­wood, founder and CEO of the Heart of Texas Foundation, a non­profit that works to pro­vide Chris­tian teach­ings to long-term in­mates.

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