In 1995 the Warden of Angola Prison approached New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary with an unusual request. Known as the “bloodiest prison in America,” Angola was in trouble and Warden Cain envisioned a solution. He wanted to create a process of moral rehabilitation that began with a seminary education, training inmates to become faith leaders inside prison walls.
In our American system of retributive justice, those who commit crimes are removed from society for a time and housed in facilities away from public view and interaction. While the goal is deterrence and rehabilitation, the result is a collection of the most disaffected and angry men collected in a single institution. For those inside, both inmates and prison staff, the experience is one of constant fear and danger.
Without funding, Dr. Chuck Kelley, then-President of NOBTS, agreed to this request and began providing bachelor’s level theological education inside Angola. At the same time, seminary personnel began working with prison staff to create roles for the students who would eventually graduate. Two positions were formulated: social mentors and church planters.
The first, social mentors, are graduates of the program whose sole work is helping the newly incarcerated acclimate to prison life. The initial shock one experiences upon arriving inside a maximum security prison is disconcerting, unlike anything one has ever encountered. The 170 seminary graduates acting as social mentors ease this transition by helping the men on the cell block to regulate their emotions and manage their behaviors.
The second position was even more uncommon. Warden Cain allowed certain stellar graduates of the program to begin small churches inside the prison. To date there have been 30 churches planted under a variety of denominational banners, including the first-ever Southern Baptist Convention approved standalone congregation. The inmate pastors live alongside their parishioners in the cell blocks and thus are required to exhibit an exceptional moral and spiritual presence which is both genuine and transparent. In an environment where hypocrisy is quickly recognized and highly disdained, these inmates are held to very high standards by both peers and prison personnel.
The results have been nothing short of amazing. Hallet, Hays, Johnson, Jang and Duwe (2017), chronicled the results in their study entitled: The Angola Prison Seminary: Effects of Faith-based Ministry on Identity Transformation, Desistance, and Rehabilitation. The violence inside the prison was markedly reduced as per the prison’s own statistics, including an entire week without one fistfight, according to Warden Cain, a remarkable statistic given the population housed there. Cain attributes the change to the work of the graduates of the seminary, men whose ability to act as peers and to respond immediately to escalating problems impact the environment in ways that prison security and wardens could not.
The prison world is much like a closed mission field. Inside the walls exists an alien culture, complete with foodways, folkways, a different language and behavioral expectations very different from free society. This can require years of acclimation before one can begin to fully comprehend the unique challenges faced by the incarcerated. Thus, outside ministries that offer occasional services to inmates are incapable of having the same impact as can an indigenous leader housed inside and alongside his fellow inmates. With the right training these leaders can exert a moral influence inside such a closed environment capable of changing the spiritual, emotional and behavioral climate of the institution.
Currently, NOBTS has programs like Angola’s inside six maximum security prisons in four states. At the inmate’s request, NOBTS has added the Master of Divinity degree at Angola to further the education of graduates seeking advanced training. Furthermore, the concept has expanded beyond NOBTS to seminaries and Christian universities across the nation.
Upon his retirement as Warden of Angola, Burl Cain established the Global Prison Seminaries Foundation whose purpose is to establish similar programs throughout the world. Providing training and mentoring to prison administrators and educators, Cain and his team have extended the concept to multiple prisons around the nation and are seeking international sites where they can adapt the model beyond the United States.
As the nation begins to recognize the failure of our carceral system and envision reforms that can improve our ability to restore inmates to full societal participation, programs such as the moral rehabilitation model of NOBTS and the Global Prison Seminaries Foundation have potential to play a major role. Cain is fond of saying, “We can educate prisons but they only become smarter criminals; what is needed is moral rehabilitation that shapes their character.” The proven results at Angola since 1995 show the moral rehabilitation model of theologically-based education merits a role in future prison reform efforts.
For more on Angola’s prison reform and moral rehabilitation, see:
Kevin Brown, PhD, LCSW, is an Associate Professor of Social Work and the Director of Prison Educational Programs at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary overseeing six extension center programs inside maximum security prisons in four states. Kevin has been teaching Christian community development ministries in at-risk, urban communities in North America and beyond for a number of years at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. He is currently vice president and soon to be president (in 2020) of NACSW’s Board of Directors, and has been a member of NACSW since 2009.