Prison is the least likely place where a person would expect to earn a degree in theological studies, but on a summer morning in Central Alabama county, 10 inmates from the Bibb Correctional Facility in Brent were awarded certificates and four inmates earned Masters of Arts in Biblical Studies from the Birmingham Theological Seminary Prison Initiative.
Dr. Thad James, BTS Vice President and director of the prison initiative, welcomed graduates and guests to the seminary’s inaugural graduation ceremony held at the state prison on Sept. 14.
“This first cohort group is a true testimony and affirmation to the redemptive and transformation work of Jesus Christ in the hearts and minds of men,” said James.
During the program, James said he observed the students growing both theologically and spiritually in their relationship with God and man.
James referred to Bible scripture to describe the students’ spiritual transition during their two years of study. “Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12: 1-2)
The BTS Prison Initiative Program is an intensive, two-year ministry training program for inmates in the Alabama corrections system. Every other year, 15 inmates are interviewed and selected from various state prisons and transferred to take seminary classes that are taught at the Bibb County Correctional Facility.
The Alabama Department of Corrections launched the privately funded initiative in September 2016.
“Not long after I was appointed commissioner, I met with Commissioner Jon Ozmint of the South Carolina Department of Corrections who introduced me to a similar program offered by Columbia International University,” said Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn.
Dunn said he was impressed with the program’s results and the tremendous impact it has had on the culture of the South Carolina prison system.
Dunn presented to BTS the concept of starting a seminary program in Alabama after his visit to South Carolina. After meeting with Dunn and listening to his proposal, Dr. James committed BTS to overseeing the program to include developing the curriculum and providing instructors.
Ozmint, who has invested most of his adult life working on all sides of the criminal justice system, delivered the commencement address. Ozmint said that “empirical evidence demonstrates that faith-based programming reduces recidivism and while not a quick-fix, the intensive and demanding BTS program will improve the culture in ADOC, making prisons and neighborhoods safer for Alabama taxpayers.”
The first cohort of students to complete the program took classes four-days-a-week that included Bible, theology, counseling, discipleship and practical ministry courses. BTS, in collaboration with other ministries, also offered inmates workshops and seminars in areas of biblical manhood, conflict resolution, relational wisdom and life skills.
The program was a life-altering experience for one graduate. After receiving his certification in Biblical Studies, Patrick Johnson said he and his classmates were proof that men can change.
“God is working in all of us and just because you have a prison mindset, doesn’t mean you can’t change. God is a changer of men and we’re living proof of that,” Johnson said.
Johnson and another graduate will serve as assistant instructors for the next cohort class that will begin in October. The remaining graduates will be assigned to correctional facilities across the state and serve as mentors, lead prison ministries, and assist counselors and instructors with corrections rehabilitative programs and services.
Dunn believes the faith-based program will have a profound effect on students, those who will benefit from their mentorship, and will have a positive influence on the state prison system as a whole.
“Our expectation for the seminary program is that it will have a positive impact in the ADOC by transforming lives and giving hope. Overtime, I believe the program will lead to lower levels of violence in our prisons and reduce recidivism rates among the inmate population,” said Dunn.