Arkansas prison seminary program seeks to expand with new facility

The Arkansas Department of Corrections Corrections Seminary Program is gearing up to graduate next year, though the program is already looking to expand by raising money for a new facility as prison officials try to reduce violence inside their institutions with the help of inmates trained in religious studies.

Last month, the State Board of Corrections approved an application by Colossians 418 Prison Ministries, a 501(c)(3) organization, to raise funds to build a prison seminary at the Varner Supermax unit located in Lincoln County. The organization is not allowed to start construction until all funds for the building have been raised.

The nonprofit estimates it will need to raise about $400,000 to build a 6,000 square foot facility that will include four classrooms, a library and offices.

Dr. William “Dubs” Byers, a member of the Corrections Board who abstained from voting due to his ties to Colossians 418 Prison Ministries, said the group plans to give presentations to churches while seeking grants and donations individual.

“I don’t know how long it will take to raise the funds. I think it will take a few years unless someone steps in with a substantial contribution,” he said.

Dexter Payne, director of the Arkansas Division of Corrections, said the proposed facility will be a metal building that should be built soon if funds are raised.

“I’m not a construction guy, but I would say probably about six months of construction because it’s not a very big building,” he said.

This building will be part of the prison’s seminary program, which Cindy Murphy, spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections, is expected to graduate from the first seminary class on May 12, according to Department of Corrections spokeswoman.

The State Correctional Seminary program is currently housed in two rooms in Varner’s unit gymnasium. The eventual facility for the seminary will be housed next to the chapel located in the high-security state prison.

The seminary program allows male inmates to work toward a Bachelor of Arts degree in Christian Studies through Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. This is a fully accredited four-year degree where inmates take regular core courses like biology, math, and college history, as well as study of the Old and New Testaments and a Bible counseling training.

“Upon graduation, they will be deployed throughout CDA to assist CDA chaplains in the day-to-day work they do,” Murphy said.

Dr. Mark Thompson is Program Director and Adjunct Professor of Church History, Theology, and Missions at Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary.

“Take away the fact that even though a lot of these guys have done unimaginable things, they’re still valuable and they’re still usable for the Lord Jesus and can still do good things,” Thompson said. “Even though their lives have been marred by horrible things, the Lord is doing good things behind the walls of CDA to change the culture and see good things happen in the lives of these men.”

Chaplain Joshua Mayfield, administrator of chaplaincy services at the Department of Corrections, said a dedicated facility for the seminary program is needed as it will allow for growth with respect to future classes.

“It would allow for a better library and bigger classrooms,” he said. “It would also allow for more office space in the future. I don’t want to speak for Mid-America, but hopefully a new facility would allow for more staff and a larger number of students.”

Mayfield said that due to space issues, they have a course every two years with student numbers capped at 25.

“We would like to be able to accommodate more students and we would like to have more teachers on site to provide the best education possible,” he said.

Thompson said if the facility was built, he believed classes would fill up fairly quickly.

“I get guys constantly asking me when I’m walking in unity on the application process,” he said. “I know here at Varner the interest is very high and people are worried about the application process coming up in a few months.”

Thompson said if the program grows to four cohorts, there will need to be another person on hand to help manage.

“What shape or form will it take, we haven’t crossed it yet, but we will cross it when the need arises,” he said.

Mayfield said there are similar programs across the country, but what makes Arkansas’s unique is that it’s for those serving long sentences.

“We chose to do this because long-term inmates are very influential,” he said. “They’re not given any authority, but it’s just a group dynamic. Their influence is rooted, I think, in the fact that these men and women have to come to terms with the fact that this will be their home for a while. some time and they want it to be as peaceful as possible.”

Mayfield said the data shows that change can spread throughout the prison population when the influential subgroup becomes healthier.

“They’re starting to work to help those around them become healthier within that population that can be very negative at times, but that’s what this program is about investing in to positively help others,” he said. declared.

PRISON SEMINAR PROGRAM

Mayfield said work began on creating a prison seminary program around 2017 after being inspired by similar programs in Texas and Louisiana. He said that when he visited prison seminaries in Texas and Louisiana, he was amazed to see inmates who became field ministers who supported the chaplain.

“I can’t overstate the importance of having someone who is an encouragement in prison,” he said. “For example, when someone gets bad news, our chaplain will try to help that person through the grieving process, but in Texas and Oklahoma, you have inmates with legitimate training in grief support, and the effectiveness of this goes beyond what happens when it’s just chaplains and volunteers I think it’s because you have someone living with you who understands the grieving process itself.

Mayfield said one of the biggest challenges was finding an accredited program that would allow inmates to receive the same credit as someone on the outside.

“Ultimately, through discussions at the leadership level of the Arkansas Department of Corrections, the Arkansas Baptist Convention, and world seminars, we came to an agreement with Mid-America in Memphis to be our higher education partner agency,” he said.

Murphy said that in 2019, the Arkansas Baptist Convention and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary, with the cooperation of the Department of Corrections, instituted the Field Ministers program.

The objective of this program is to help change the culture within the walls of the various units that make up the ADC by training men to lead and serve their fellow inmates by example.

In order to be considered for the program, these men must have at least 10 years remaining on their sentence, maintain a clean disciplinary record, commit to helping change the culture in the prison system, and meet certain other academic requirements. .

“It was important to be housed in a facility where any type of inmate can go,” Mayfield said. “A medium-security prison couldn’t handle some levels, and we wanted lifers involved.”

Byers said the seminary program is available to all state inmates as long as they can pass the application process.

“You don’t have to sign any religious documents,” he said. “In fact, we had a Muslim on the program at Varner, and there may be those who have no religious affiliation.”

Byers said certain academic guidelines are required before an inmate can be accepted into the program. He said that includes a high school diploma, GED, or test for adult basic education.

“You cannot be actively involved in gang groups and you must commit to living a life of integrity,” he said.

Thompson, who teaches in person for the program, said a basic day for an inmate in the program is filled with classes.

“You take five classes per semester and one class per day for three hours on a set schedule,” he said.

Thompson said the first two years of the program consist of completing core courses like biology, Spanish, literature and other general studies courses. He said that from the third year, students begin to take classes on the New and Old Testaments and Bible counseling.

“Counselling classes seem to encourage the barracks guys the most,” Thompson said. “It allows them to solve the problems they are facing, and they can take their Bible and guide others through their problems as well.”

Byers said the program costs nothing to the state or the inmates.

“It’s funded by donations and set up as a non-profit organization,” he said. “So far, the program has been fully funded by the Arkansas State Baptist Convention. They gave us a budget of about $200,000 a year, which is about $4,000 per inmate and per year.”

Byers said the 501(c)(3) entity was recently created for Colossians 418 to enable him to raise funds to ease the burden on the Arkansas Baptist Convention.

“As a nonprofit, we can take grants, private donations, and be a little more flexible in our fundraising efforts,” he said.

Byers said about two-thirds of students in the program were serving life sentences.

“We are one of the few programs that look for inmates who have been in prison for a long time,” he said. “All the other programs are looking for inmates to come out in the not too distant future.”

Mayfield said this program tries to equip men who have clearly made mistakes in life to do better.

“Some of these men will spend the rest of their lives in prison, and with this program they can become positive influences within the prison and create a more peaceful and safer prison,” he said. “Some will return to the community, and when they do, they will be much more invested in being positive citizens and positive members of the community than they were before.”

Ryan H. Bowman