Of the 600 or so students enrolled each year at New York Theological Seminary (NYTS), only 15 are residential — but they are extremely residential. Each year 15 men from prisons throughout the state of New York are selected for the seminary's master of professional studies (MPS) class that meets inside the walls of Sing Sing Correctional Facility in the town of Ossining.

The seminary's work in the prison began in the early 1980s, when pastors who ministered within the New York correctional system approached Bill Webber, then president of NYTS, and asked for help setting up an educational program for incarcerated men who wanted to provide pastoral care inside the prison. Webber, long an advocate for the urban poor, thought that offering education behind bars was a good fit with the seminary's mission.

About a decade later, in the middle 1990s, another seminary was approached about starting a program in a prison. The new warden of the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, Burl Cain, was sharing a cup of coffee with the director of missions for the local Baptist association, T. W. Terrell. Cain mentioned that most of the funding for educational programs had been cut recently, and he bemoaned the fact that inmates had little hope of making any changes in their lives without educational opportunities.

Terrell, a graduate of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary (NOBTS), suggested that Cain talk to the seminary about setting up classes at the Angola penitentiary (which is known locally as "the Farm"). The warden doubted the school would want to come into a maximum-security prison, but he contacted seminary president Landrum Leavell. The president and a faculty member, Jimmy Dukes, discussed how a program at the Farm might fit with the New Orleans seminary's mission.

Student speaker at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary's 2010 commencement ceremony at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. The program's graduates have earned associate's or bachelor's degrees, meeting the same requirements as on-campus students.
(Photo courtesy of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary) 

Dukes had reservations — and said so. "Our mission was to train leaders for the local churches. I said that to Warden Cain, and he replied, ‘We have 20 to 25 inmate-led churches here on the Farm. They need trained leaders, too.'" Leavell retired as the seminary's president soon after the initial discussions, and Dukes, along with new president Charles Kelley, began the work of establishing an undergraduate degree program inside a maximum-security prison. Kelley says, "We took a deep breath, and we dove in."

According to Kelley, "After the first group got through the associate degree, they didn't want to stop, and we went ahead and offered the full baccalaureate degree. These men wanted to learn." The program's first associate degrees were awarded in 1998, and the first bachelor of arts degrees in 2000. The programs have since been expanded to facilities in Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida, and the school has recently launched a certificate program within Louisiana's only facility for female prisoners.

The programs

Students in both the NYTS and NOBTS prison programs take the same classes and complete the same work as students on the outside, and they earn the same degrees.

Sing Sing seminarians come from correctional facilities across New York state. Of the 15 accepted each year, typically five are already residents of Sing Sing and ten are transfers from other New York prisons. The men who transfer are almost always moving from medium-security penitentiaries, but Sing Sing is a maximum-security facility. NYTS president Dale Irvin notes that this is a significant move for an inmate. "It represents quite a commitment from the very beginning," he says.

Applicants must have a degree from an accredited undergraduate college, three prior years free of disciplinary incidents, and a recommendation from a chaplain in their institution. In addition, superintendents at each facility must agree to any transfers.

Irvin describes the NYTS program: "It's 36 graduate credit hours, and they earn them. We offer 39 credits, so that if one course results in a grade lower than a C, they can still graduate. They earn 15 credits in the fall semester, 15 credits in the spring, and do an intensive in January and two intensives in May." The whole program takes one academic year.

All students agree to give up weekday visits from friends and family during the year in which they are enrolled. Classes take up the entire morning, and afternoons are study time, for reading and writing papers. The students use donated computers to write their papers, but they have no access to the Internet. Three to four nights a week, students participate in supervised ministry inside the prison, often with outside organizations providing services like anti-violence programs, HIV/AIDS education, drug treatment, and other educational programs behind bars. All students complete a year of field work and a year of pastoral counseling while they are completing their classes.

In Louisiana, inmates earn an undergraduate degree — either a two-year, 76-credit-hour associate of arts or a four-year, 126-credit-hour bachelor of arts. "The men learn Greek and Hebrew, they study the Bible and theology, and they meet the same standards as students on campus," says seminary president Kelley. Failure to maintain a C average results in academic probation and may lead to expulsion. Men accepted for either degree program must have no disciplinary incidents on their record for the previous 12 months and must agree to attend class or study in the prison library for eight hours a day.

Edward L. Hunt, director of the master of professional studies program at Sing Sing, was a prison chaplain for more than 30 years. "It is a wonderful venture," he says of the program sponsored by New York Theological Seminary. "It is life-changing, not only for the man who gets involved. Working with people who have come through such a tremendous amount of struggle, have made the conscious decision to do right — oh my God, it is worth it."
(Photo courtesy of Bob Gore) 

Participants are chosen through a process that involves approval from prison administration, chaplaincy, and security personnel, in addition to NOBTS faculty. The seminary also requires admitted students to take introductory classes to prepare them spiritually and academically for a demanding program, says Professor Dukes.

As is the case at Sing Sing, seminarians at the Farm usually have to transfer in order to participate, and these transfers typically involve moving from a minimum- or medium-security facility to a maximum-security prison with a longstanding reputation as the most violent in America.

Teaching is a big commitment for faculty from both institutions. NYTS faculty must be "on gate" at 8:30 a.m. to go through security, and they are usually are back outside at 12:30 or 1 p.m. Faculty cannot bring anything other than a Bible, some paper, one book, and a few personal effects. Assigned readings and handouts are sent beforehand to the chaplain's office, and any reading that might be interpreted as inciting violence goes through an additional approval process. (An example of a suspect reading assignment: Fritz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth.)

During the first year of the NOBTS program, few people besides the school's trustees and faculty knew about the classes inside the Angola penitentiary. Since there was no budget, the first faculty members were unpaid volunteers. "We couldn't even pay our first teachers gas money to drive out to the prison," says Kelley. Eventually the seminary was able to partner with local Baptist associations and local congregations, raising funds to underwrite costs.

The programs of both schools are open to students of all faiths. In Sing Sing, the NYTS program includes Christians, Muslims, and Rastafarians, but agnostic students are also welcome. The curriculum requires all students to reflect on the sacred texts and religious experiences of every participant. Seminary president Irvin says that the students' encounter with people of other faiths is part of the design of the program.

In Louisiana, the NOBTS prison program originally enrolled only Christian students. But a few years after it began, the warden called. Kelley and said, "I have an unusual request. Would you allow two or three Muslim students to enroll? We have Muslim prisoners who are very interested in the program, very impressed by the other students."

Kelley wasn't sure. "Well, a conservative Baptist seminary enrolling Muslim students is not what you would call business as usual. But I told him, if our trustees agree, and if all students agree to take the curriculum exactly as it is, with no substitute courses or readings, we'll do it. If Muslims want training in Christian ministry, we'll provide it."

Alumni in ministry

After graduation, New York Theological Seminary graduates may become chaplains' assistants in facilities throughout the state, or they may work in prison infirmaries, offices of various prison departments, pre-release programs, drug and violence programs, or other educational programs. Those who are released often find work in social service agencies, or with churches in urban New York and New Jersey, sometimes working with at-risk youth. Some of the graduates come back to Sing Sing as adjunct professors; their success stories make a big impact on the men who remain incarcerated.

Irvin says that relationships continue after graduation. "We have very good relationships with graduates who have been released, and in fact have a separate 501(c)(3) organization working with them on re-entry programs."

Julio Medina is the executive director and founder of Exodus Transitional Community, which was established in 1999 to work with people transitioning from incarceration. Medina earned a master of professional studies degree in the NYTS program at Sing Sing, and after his release went on to earn an M.Div. degree from the seminary. He says that pursuing a seminary degree while incarcerated turned his life around. "It said to me that I was more than a drug dealer. I was a human being with a lot to give. It brought me a God who was not remote."

Medina says that the seminary program affects even inmates who are not enrolled. "For example, each class conducts various projects," he explains. "One project for our class was a food drive for city churches. We collected more than a thousand cans of food from men in prison - men earning 65 cents a day. It may sound simple, but it wasn't. To see gang leaders, drug dealers, and burglars turning into food drive collectors in that environment was something. It became life-giving, because it made us want to do more. Before you knew it, we wanted to do gang intervention, stop the younger guys from killing each other. There was momentum. The seminary gave us the opportunity to stand up for what is right."

Many graduates of the New Orleans Baptist Seminary program transfer to other facilities in order to fulfill their ministry callings within the Louisiana prison system.
(Photo courtesy of New Orleans Baptist Seminary) 

Another organization that works on follow-up is Hudson Link for Higher Education. Sean Pica, the executive director, is another graduate of the NYTS program in Sing Sing. Pica says that when inmates are released from prison, many feel as if they have a tattoo on their foreheads, labeling them as ex-cons. "They think no one will hire them. But when I got out, after 16 years of incarceration, my education enabled me to immediately find a job in social services. Then we can go back into the prisons, and show the men that there is hope." Pica's organization also works with graduates of NYTS (and other schools) who are still incarcerated all over the state. "They run programs, they work as clerks, they facilitate groups - the whole system benefits from this group of educated men and women."

About 98 percent of New York state prisoners eventually return home, according to Irvin. "We like to think that they come home a better person after having come through a program like ours." The situation after graduation at Angola is very different. According to seminary president Kelley, more than nine-tenths of the Farm's 5,000 inmates never leave. "Our graduates have to find a way to fulfill their ministries within the system," he says.

One way they fulfill their ministries is by transferring to other facilities. At the third NOBTS Angola graduation ceremony, the warden asked graduates to consider going out into other Louisiana prisons in teams of two. He had been approached by wardens of other facilities who had specifically requested that NOBTS graduates be transferred to their facilities to see if they could make a difference.

The warden warned the new graduates about the hardships they would face. "You'll have prison guards who will try to break you. You'll have to start at the bottom of the ladder. You won't have the privileges you have earned over the years here. It'll be tough, but we'll pray for you and we will send support to you. At the end of two years, if you want to come back to Angola, you can come back home."

Kelley says that the warden's appeal reminded him of an appeal for foreign missionaries. Many NOBTS graduates answered that call for help from other facilities, and they're now at work throughout the state.

Board involvement

Leaders at both schools agree that trustees must be fully aware of all aspects of the school's prison education programs and should be involved as much as possible.

At NYTS, President Irvin says that trustee involvement is essential to the program. "We consider it a signature program that expresses our mission, and trustees understand that. More than half of our trustees have attended a class inside Sing Sing, and this requires a substantial time commitment on their part, due to the distance and the security procedures. All our trustees are invited to the graduation program, and a core group attends every graduation."

One of those board members, Rabbi Douglas Krantz, says, "The program is really a positive, positive force in a very difficult environment. None of us can really imagine it. How do you find your way in that darkness? That these guys can find something positive, can find a way out of that darkness — this to me is worthy of great admiration and respect."

New Orleans Baptist trustees are usually present at graduations at the prison, too. President Kelley says, "Our board never had any hesitation about this program. You can't attend one of these graduations and not be touched. You leave more committed to the program than ever."

Antoinne Murphy earned a master's degree at Sing Sing this year, and he was chosen by his classmates to deliver the commencement address. His closing words contain advice for anyone interested in supporting education behind bars: "May God grant us the eyes to see the needs and woes of humanity, that we may learn from the compassion of Christ as we meet those needs."

Prison seminary program benefits both the school and the "incarcerated church"

Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary in Mill Valley, California, conferred diplomas in Christian ministries to four inmates of San Quentin State Prison for the first time in June 2010. Through the seminary's Contextualized Leadership Development Program, which provides classes at a post-high school level for those without a high school diploma or college degree, 30-plus inmates are now being taught by seminary graduate students or alumni, and the new graduates all have ministries within the prison system.

Seminary president Jeff Iorg describes the benefits and value of the program:

  • Our prison program underscores our conviction that church can exist anywhere — and where the church exists, it needs trained leaders. 
  • We work closely with prison officials, making sure we have their support and regularly communicating with them our desire to work within their systems as cooperatively as possible. It is a privilege to be in the prison, and we respect the men and women who work there. 
  • We believe, over time, we can help change the prison culture in California. The more Christian leaders we can shape for ministry behind bars, the stronger the incarcerated church will be. 
  • Our prison program is a great training venue for Ph.D. and Th.M. students who need to develop their teaching skills.


1. Work within the system

"Part of the difficulty is interfacing with an entire state bureaucracy, with rules and regulations that can be very different from what you are accustomed to," says Dale Irvin, president of New York Theological Seminary (NYTS). "Being able to work with the administration on things like the transferring of inmates takes both time and sensitivity to the needs of their system. You have to have someone inside the system working with you; you need a relationship with the administration, with the correctional officers — all of these factors are critical.

The ideal situation is to work with prison chaplains, because they know how the organization functions from the inside. The chaplain can introduce the school to the administration and create a bridge. You don't just knock on the warden's door out of the blue and say, "We've got a program for you and here's how it will work."

2. You can't control everything

Charles Kelley, president of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary (NOBTS), is realistic about the risks involved in prison education. "You will not be able to eliminate all the risk. Something bad could happen on any day. I could get a phone call today saying that we have to leave the prison immediately, and that would be it. It's one reason we work on building the library - the books will outlive us."

3. Talk to people who have experience

"Give us a call," says Jimmy Dukes, one of the faculty members at New Orleans Seminary's prison program. "We'll be glad to talk to you. The warden at Angola is always ready to help people see what kind of impact this kind of program could have in other places. Let us tell you the full story, let us invite you to visit Angola and meet the teachers and the students, and see the difference it's making in their lives."

4. You will be glad you did it

Rabbi Douglas Krantz, a NYTS board member, says, "This is where religion and faith and hope are tested. Finding light and hope, and helping people transform themselves, is essential work for all of us, no matter our religion. I would encourage trustees to go down this road."

"My first word of advice is, just do it," says NOBTS president Kelley. "When I'm attending a graduation ceremony at Angola, and I see the joy, the depth of what God has done in the lives of these inmates, it is worth it. We're very honored that God would give us the privilege of training for ministry in the prison system." 

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