NASHVILLE, N.C. (RNS) — Twenty-four men wearing black caps and gowns strode across the stage of the Nash Correctional gym last week to collect a Bachelor of Arts diploma in pastoral ministry.
They shook hands with Danny Akin, president of the College at Southeastern, the undergraduate school of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, and posed for a photographer.
For these men, about half of whom will spend the rest of their lives in prison with no chance of parole, the march to the stage at the prison, about 50 miles east of Raleigh, was a high-water mark of their life behind bars.
They are among the inaugural class of inmates to earn a four-year degree from an accredited school and have spent long hours studying Hebrew, Greek, theology, counseling and the history of ideas.
All 24 inmates graduated with honors; three of the men had a perfect 4.0 grade point average.
Now they will fan out across the state’s 55 prisons to serve the rest of their sentences ministering to other inmates.
“I can tell you from the bottom of my heart, I have never been more proud of any graduates that I have had the joy of presiding over,” an ebullient Akin said in his graduation address, noting he was “honored beyond words” to have his name inscribed on their diplomas.
The graduation marks a first for the North Carolina prison system, which to date offers no other in-person accredited bachelor’s program for some 30,000 state prisoners. But the degree program is part of a fledgling movement of evangelical seminaries, colleges and universities to rehabilitate prisoners through education.
There are at least 17 evangelical schools offering 23 degree programs at prisons across the country, according to the Prison Seminary Foundation, a Christian nonprofit that supports such efforts. In most of them, seminary professors teach in-person and online to inmates with at least eight years left on their sentence. (Southeastern’s program requires inmates applying for the program to have a minimum of 12 years of incarceration left so they can complete their studies and gain experience serving as field ministers.)
At a time when some conservative evangelicals liken “social justice” to a postmodern ideology inconsistent with the Bible, the push for prison reform through education is quietly taking root.
“This could very well be a template for post-secondary higher education in prison,” said Julie Jailall, superintendent for prison education at the state’s Department of Public Safety. “It meets all expectations for what a prison education program should be.”
Jailall noted that the program’s 80% rate of completion was particularly good outcome. The inaugural class included 30 men; three dropped out and three others will graduate with next year’s cohort. If they do, the rate of completion will rise to 90%.