By Christopher Zoukis
Religion is a touchy subject; so, what happens when religious education takes place behind prison walls? The goings on at Nash Correctional Institution (NCI) give us some insight.
Currently, at NCI, 24 inmates are studying for a bachelor’s degree in pastoral ministry. Most of these men will be in prison for life, and the rest have more than a decade left to serve.
How is this helpful when most of the inmates will never leave prison?
It may surprise you to learn that this type of religious instruction for inmates is having a profound effect on the prisoners taking the classes, and on the inmate population. The offenders that will not be released are not being groomed for ministry outside of prison. They are being trained to offer counseling to other inmates, to assist the prison chaplain, and to be a strong but calm presence for their fellow prisoners.
Called “the new niche” by USA Today’s Go San Angelo publication, classes like the ones at NCI are becoming more popular. The program sponsors are usually post-secondary schools associated with Southern Baptist beliefs.
The Global Prison Seminaries Foundation (GPSF) is a major supporter and provider of in-prison seminary education, citing a mission to support the Prison Seminary Model program, to provide education and counseling, and to research how moral rehabilitation can improve prison systems locally and abroad. According to its Model, GPSF allows for all inmates of all faiths to take its degree program, although it stipulates that Biblical tenants will be the foundation of the class. GPSF works with state departments of corrections to implement its program.
Back at NCI, offenders in the ministry program are getting a boost thanks to a non-profit organization called Game Plan For Life.
Joe Gibbs, a former NFL head coach, and a NASCAR team owner launched Game Plan For Life as a men’s ministry. In addition to outreach programs in the community, Game Plan funds the North Carolina Field Minister Program at NCI. The program is so popular that a second classroom is needed on site. Currently, the students take instruction in a temporary building. Game Plan is raising funds to build the new classroom.
James Benov attends seminary classes at NCI. In the Go San Angelo article he cited, “Before we came here a lot of us were living in despair — no hope. “[The program] transformed us. We have a purpose, a direction and a mission in life.”
At NCI, students of all faith attend the ministry classes, including Baptist, Pentecostal, Catholic, Muslim, and Rastafarian.
Although it can be hard to believe when watching the mainstream news, religious civil liberties are important to America. It’s part of the First Amendment. Therefore, regardless of one’s personal stance on religion, seminary classes have a right to be part of prison education. It certainly isn’t doing any harm. Education of any sort dramatically changes an inmate’s life for the better, whether or not they will be released; and, with a focus on “moral rehabilitation” one can only assume that inmates taking a course of religious study will be far less likely to return to jail, and much more likely to be a positive influence while behind bars. After all, isn’t that what prison education is all about?
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014). He regularly contributes to New York Daily News, Prison Legal News and Criminal Legal News. He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonerResource.com.