Texas offers Bible classes while vocational training is slashed

By Alan Bean

According to stories published this weekend in the Texas press, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice will soon be offering a four-year course in biblical studies to forty inmates.

The training isn’t intended to prepare inmates for pastoral ministry in the outside world–most of the students are serving long sentences and will be locked up for many years.  Prison officials know that gangs and God are the most popular survival mechanisms for inmates.  Gangs create grief; a focus on God encourages compliance and reduces violent behavior.  By enhancing the God-option, state officials hope to create more disciplined and less violent prisons.

If you have been reading my recent posts on Burl Cain, the evangelical warden of Louisiana’s Angola prison, you will be wondering if the fledgling Texas program is a Louisiana import.  Yes, it is.  State Senators Dan Patrick (R-Houston) and John Whitmire (D-Houston) were recently introduced to the Angola program and came away impressed.

Part of me thinks likes this idea.  Having preached, sang and prayed with prisoners in the past, I know how important faith can become for people who have been stripped of everything but God.

But there are problems.  Lots of problems.

As Scott Henson points out in Grits for Breakfast, vocational programs for Texas inmates were slashed during the recent legislative session.  In effect, prison officials have diverted resources from a program geared to assist with post-release employment for a program promising to instill obedience and reduce violence.

Why can’t we have both?

Henson is also concerned that TDCJ is giving preferential treatment to the fundamentalist wing of the religious community.  It isn’t just that the new program amounts to state sanction of a single religion; it awards all the marbles to sectarian Baptists who, in recent years, have ruthlessly disenfranchised moderate churches and pastors.

Between 1980 and the mid-nineties, Southern Baptists across the South mounted a brutal purge against the denomination’s “moderate” element (there were few real “liberals” in the SBC).  I was working on a doctorate at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky between 1989 and 1994. When I arrived, the faculty was little changed from the folks who taught my wife, Nancy, and me back in the 1970s.  Two years later, all four professors in the church history department had been forced out and the same dismal pattern was being replicated throughout the seminary. Then many of the conservative replacements suffered the same fate (most commonly because they believed women were worthy of ordination).

The General Baptist Convention of Texas, a conservative organization if ever there was one, was deeply troubled with these developments, especially as they played out in Fort Worth’s Southwestern Baptist Seminary.  The ouster of the irenic Russell Dilday as seminary president created an ideological cleavage among Texas Baptists that will take at least a generation to heal.

As a result, Southwestern Seminary is no longer affiliated with the General Baptist Convention of Texas, having thrown in its lot with the fundamentalist (and highly politicized) Southern Baptists of Texas.

By throwing in its lot with radical fundamentalists without creating opportunities for other faith groups, the TDCJ is favoring folks aligned with the pro-Republican religious right.

The same scenario has unfolded in Louisiana.  There, the New Orleans Theological Seminary has been encouraged to preach its distinctive brand of spirituality while other evangelical groups, mainline denominations and Roman Catholics have been left out in the cold.

Non-Christian religious groups need not apply.

Here’s the big problem; fundamentalist Baptists, most of them ardent Republicans, have no problem with mass incarceration or the fact that 60 percent of Texas inmates are people of color.  Roman Catholics, the Protestant mainline, and less sectarian evangelical Christians have become increasingly critical of the criminal justice system.  The state of Texas has no business picking religious favorites.

I have no problem with Southwestern Theological Seminary providing religious instruction to Texas inmates.  Great idea.  More power to them.  But are other faith groups receiving the same opportunity?

Money, as always, is a major factor.  Conservative Christians, like conservative political groups, are relatively flush these days.  Wealthy donors tend to be conservative (they have so much to conserve), but it goes deeper than that.  When “Christians” throw in their lot with law-n-order politicians, the money rolls down like an ever-flowing stream.  This tight relationship between uncompassionate politics and remorseless religion is formulated to maintain the status quo which creates a stable business climate.  As the story below makes clear, Southwestern’s program got the go-ahead because it is funded by private donations.

Prison officials to christen seminary for inmates

By Mike Ward


Published: 8:44 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 27, 2011

Come Monday, the once-troubled, maximum-security Darrington prison south of Houston will get a new focus that state officials hope could someday make Texas’ state prison system less violent: God.

In an afternoon convocation at the 1,900-convict prison, officials will inaugurate Texas’ first seminary operated within a prison. The program will initially enroll 40 convicts who could eventually earn a biblical studies degree so they can minister to felons at other state prisons.

This “program has the potential to help these men change their thought patterns, which in turn can change their lives and the lives of everyone around them,” said Brad Livingston, executive director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which operates the state’s corrections system.

Unlike most current prison rehabilitation programs, the initiative is not designed for convicts who are about to be released or paroled. Instead, its participants are serving long sentences, most for violent crimes, and most will be behind bars for many additional years — if not the rest of their lives.

All participants in the nondenominational program are volunteers, officials said.

The cost to taxpayers: zero. Private grants and donations will pay all expenses of the seminary, which is patterned after a highly acclaimed minister-training program in Louisiana, officials said.

Legislative leaders and prison officials say they hold great hope for the new program, but its formation has not been without controversy. Some civil liberties groups have questioned whether the seminary blurs, or even crosses, the line separating church from state.

But prison officials and supporters say that by making the program voluntary and without a denominational focus — much like another faith-based rehabilitation program operated for prisoners for more than a decade and now highly acclaimed at another nearby prison — any such issues have been avoided.

In fact, Texas offers religious programs at all of its 111 state prisons and has faith-based programs and initiatives involving more than 2,700 convicts at 24 of them.

“This is an exciting project that will inspire incarcerated offenders to accomplish a goal that will give them hope for the future,” said state Sen. Dan Patrick, a Houston Republican who with Sen. John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat, pushed to establish the seminary after touring the Louisiana program.

Whitmire agrees that the program holds great promise. “Texas has never experienced anything like this before. It has the potential to transform our whole (prison) system,” he said.

Patrick said the seminary, sponsored by the nationally known Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention and the nonprofit Heart of Texas Foundation, will train felons to become ministers. Once they complete the 125-credit-hour, four-year program, they will

receive a bachelor of science degree and be assigned to other state prisons.

“The opportunity to provide education and growth for those in a prison unit … is the opportunity to enable these inmates to discover a significant new way that, through study, will change life, perspective and hope for hundreds,” Paige Patterson, president of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, said in a statement.

The Fort Worth seminary will provide teachers. The Heart of Texas Foundation, a prison ministry group based in Fulshear, is providing an $8,000 theological library.

In some respects, Darrington, opened in 1917 outside the town of Rosharon and now one of Texas’ oldest prisons, might seem an unlikely place for a seminary. In the past, it was considered one of Texas’ tougher prisons, plagued at various times by violence and contraband smuggling.

The lockup was one of the first to get increased security in a crackdown on smuggled cellphones that began two years ago, after a convict on death row phoned Whitmire, who chairs the Senate committee that oversees prisons.

But Whitmire said Darrington is the perfect site, noting that Louisiana started its seminary in that state’s toughest maximum-security prison. Within a few years, he and Patrick said, the whole culture at that prison changed — from a 70 percent reduction in inmate violence to no cursing.

“I’ve never seen so many people serving life terms walking around with a smile on their face,” Whitmire said.

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