Roy R.D. Dotson
The U.S. has the world’s largest prison population, and many states are looking for rehabilitation programs that lower recidivism rates, reduce inmate violence, and decrease correctional costs. Rehabilitation is one of the main goals of the correctional system, yet state prisoners reoffend at an alarming rate, with over 76 percent rearrested within five years after release. Prisons are legally required to provide for inmates’ safety, but the climate of violence affecting both prisoners and prison staff is deep-seated and life-threatening. Ballooning costs can mount up to $60,000 per inmate, per year, with almost $300 billion spent annually on the total justice system. While it is valuable to offer rehabilitation and violence prevention programs to inmates, it is a waste of money if they are not successful. Unfortunately, after vast sums of money have been spent, many states have found their programs to be ineffective.
In 1995, the first prison seminary program began at Louisiana State Penitentiary, not with the goal to reduce recidivism, but as an option to replace college programs affected by the loss of Pell Grant funding. Combining faith-based programs with a four-year college degree, prison seminaries are a unique and increasingly popular prison education program. Unlike programs that focus on reentry into the community, these privately-funded programs have a vested interest in the students they enroll. Most of the seminaries follow a model that provides students with the opportunity to become Inmate Ministers once they graduate. Prison seminaries look for graduates to become agents of change. These graduates have proven to be a rewarding investment in the struggle to change the overall prison culture. Rather than partnering with outside agencies, the successful partnership between the prison, the department of corrections, and the seminary has also shown to be a successful partnership with the inmates who participate in the program. This strategy is producing the added benefit of changes in behavior that improve both recidivism and violence.
How are prison seminaries changing prison systems in regard to recidivism, inmate violence, and correctional costs? There have been numerous well-funded federal and state prison rehabilitation programs with little or no success in affecting positive change. While prison seminaries concentrate on academics and theology they add elements of hope and relationship-building that are missing from most federal and state programs.
The literature reveals the differences in the way federally funded programs and seminaries address prison issues. The government largely focuses on recidivism and reentry programs and uses three to five years as the standard for measuring recidivism, but prison seminaries are hoping for a lifelong change. A large number of prison seminary students have no chance of parole and some of the seminaries’ guidelines require a minimum time, such as ten years, left on a prisoner’s sentence to be eligible for the programs. Seminary programs expect a change in the lives of their participants while they are still in prison and while they have many years left to influence other inmates as well as staff with their changed lives.
Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola, is America’s largest maximum-security prison. Since Angola partnered with New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary in 1995, 338 Angola inmates have graduated with bachelor’s degrees and 22 have earned master’s degrees. Three years before the seminary began, Angola reported 1,346 assaults; in 2015 the number was 343, a 75 percent reduction. Angola did not expect to be an example for future prison seminaries but because of Angola’s drastic change in reputation and proven drop in violence, other prison seminaries began to follow their model. Darrington Penitentiary in Texas, which followed the successful Angola model of moral rehabilitation and the use of inmate ministers, now houses the world’s largest prison seminary. There are 14 states that have prison seminaries modeled after Angola. Inmates are not alone in their anticipation of the benefits of a seminary at their prison. States are taking notice as they hear success stories regarding reduced violence and changes in prison culture in facilities where seminaries are operating.
Studies identify several reasons why prison seminaries are changing the overall culture of prisons, including individual identity transformations, the activities of inmate ministers, and participation in religious activities. Religion and faith played a major role in the transformation of Angola’s prisoners and the prison culture as a whole. Prison seminaries are using education, and religion and faith to equip inmates with knowledge and training to lead religious services, share their personal faith stories, and give hope to fellow inmates.
Prison seminaries are changing prisons from the inside out. They are changing inmates’ attitudes and actions. Studies reveal prison seminaries are reducing recidivism rates and inmate violence, which in turn reduces the overall costs of incarceration. The findings also indicate that while there may be a concern by some that prison seminaries violate the Establishment Clause, the prison seminaries have overcome these concerns by being privately funded and not restricting application into the programs.
Prison seminaries are not asking for government funding but are looking to work alongside correctional institutions to meet the needs of people whose needs are great and give inmate ministers the opportunity to be an integral part of the process. Research funds need to be allocated to study the processes and outcomes of Angola as well as other prison seminary programs so legislators can have the facts they need to make informed decisions. The human and financial costs are too high to continue the cycle of experimenting with programs, researching their unsuccessful outcomes, and trying again. There will never be a program with a 100 percent rate of rehabilitation, but research suggests that prison seminary programs that focus on transformation rather than reformation are strong contenders as viable options for rehabilitation. Embracing prison seminary education as a successful solution to an overwhelmed corrections system would reduce recidivism and inmate violence, save taxpayers millions of dollars a year, and transform overall prison culture.