Twenty-four inmates who graduated with a BA degree in Pastoral Ministry is not only a significant milestone for the North Carolina prison system but also, for these persevering inmates.
Who would have thought that getting a degree while in prison was possible? Being imprisoned most of the time connotes hopelessness, sadness, and lack of a promising future. These hardworking inmates proved that something beautiful could come out of the most painful moments of their lives.
They graduated recently at Nash Correctional gym. Nearly half of them will spend the rest of their lives in prison without any chance of getting parole. Getting a degree to help other inmates is undoubtedly a way of making their stay productive and fulfilling.
They did not just merely finish the course. They graduated with flying colors. Everyone graduated with honors. Three among them got a 4.0-grade point average. They studied Greek, Hebrew, Theology, Counseling, and history of ideas. Guess these inmates/students had devoted much of their time and effort to finish this course.
“I can tell you from the bottom of my heart; I have never been more proud of any graduates that I have had the joy of presiding over,” Danny Akin, president of the College at Southeastern, said. He proudly handed them their well-deserved diplomas. He was “honored beyond words” to inscribe his name on their certificates.
This is the first time the North Carolina prison system has offered a bachelor’s program for their state prisoners. The newly graduated inmates will be assigned to 55 prisons across the state. They will counsel, mentor, and encourage other prisoners. These field ministers are not expected to force Christianity on their fellow inmates because the prison system “cannot promote one faith over others,” Julie Jailall, superintendent for prison education at the state’s Department of Public Safety, explained. Also, they will be teaching “Thinking for a Change,” a curriculum developed by the National Institute of Corrections. They aim to create a calm prison environment and decrease violence.
Kirston Marshall Angell, 32, graduated as summa cum laude. He was assigned to a maximum-security prison in the western part of the state. This minister was “ecstatic” to help inmates aged 18-25 who are still adjusting to their lives in prison.
“I’ve grown out of myself,’ said Kirston. “I’ve learned to set myself aside and favor others. That’s what this program has called us to.”
Loren Hammonds, a 43-year-old inmate serving a life sentence without parole, will be deployed to a hospice-care ward at a prison 40 miles from Charlotte. He will give comfort and accompany terminally ill inmates.
“I want to give them hope,” Loren said, “and introduce them to the Gospel.”
This worthy cause was funded by a grant from Game Plan for Life. It is a Christian ministry founded by former NFL football coach and auto racing team owner Joe Gibbs. Joe partnered with the College at Southeastern to make this possible.
The Southeastern College spends $500,000/year to run the program. The Sunshine Lady Foundation and the North Carolina Baptist State Convention also help finance the program.
“I ask on the first day: ‘How many of you never thought you’d have the opportunity to get a four-year college degree?'” said Seth Bible, director of the prison program and assistant professor at Southeastern College. “Without fail, for four straight years, 90% of the people in class will raise their hand. They say they didn’t have strong parental influence or were influenced by drugs or gangs and never had anyone believe in them, or they’ve never believed in themselves,” he explained further.
“The moment you begin to tell someone that they have value, first in the eyes of God, and in your eyes as well. And, then you tell them, not only do I think you have value, but the people who support this program think you have value — that, in itself, is transformative,” Seth said with conviction.
Prison education is expected to spread by June 2023. Ten North Carolina schools and Campbell University are looking into offering different degree programs in prisons. For now, “evangelical degrees” are the most prevalent, especially in Southern U.S.
“More wardens and directors of prisons are looking for ways to change the tide of crime inside and help these guys when they do get out, so they don’t come back in. It’s an educational program that impacts the heart and mind,” said Denny Autrey, director of operations for the Prison Seminaries Foundation.
These newly graduated field ministers will be assigned to different prisons to be “Ambassadors of Christ.”
“You get to take the life-changing light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to those who have value, men for whom Christ died,” Akin reminded them.
There will always be hope and light when one’s life is in Christ. These people who were once in darkness are now being used to share hope, joy, and Christ with their fellow inmates, who can also be “Ambassadors of light” to others in the future.