LEAVENWORTH, Kan. (BP)–Dale Sutton, a chaplain at the federal penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kan., contacted Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary last August to arrange a meeting with the seminary’s president, R. Philip Roberts.
Dale Sutton had seen prisons and state penitentiaries cooperate with educational institutions to bring undergraduate-level instruction to inmates, and he saw a need for a similar program at Leavenworth.
The chaplain envisioned a program that would give incarcerated individuals an opportunity to discover true Christianity in a program dedicated to making disciples and preparing the forgiven to defend their faith.
Sutton gained an audience with Roberts, along with the seminary’s then-vice president for academic development, Jerry Johnson, and a fellow chaplain, Mike Crowell.
“We ate lunch and discussed this opportunity,” Dale Sutton said. “We left feeling directed and excited.”
The men believed that, given the government’s predilection for education, a partnership could be formed between Leavenworth and the seminary.
“Education is something that is very much backed by the federal government, especially in regards to inmate reentry,” Sutton said, explaining the measures the government takes to ensure a former prisoner’s successful re-assimilation into society. “We took this idea and invited Christian education into the institution so as not just to make a difference in reentry but also in eternity.”
In the context of Midwestern’s Contextualized Leadership Development program, courses began at Leavenworth last October with 24 students enrolled in the first class.
Rodney Harrison, Midwestern’s vice president for institutional effectiveness, said Leavenworth is one of several CLD centers in the Midwest, but it is the only center in a federal prison. Dale Sutton said the program is set apart from similar collaborations.
“There are many prisons that do correspondence classes, and some even have people come into the institution to teach classes. The only problem with this is that they aren’t accredited. Anyone can teach, and there is no accountability of what is being taught,” Sutton said. “There are currently only two institutions that we know of that are doing a program like this … us and Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola. [But] we are the only federal prison that is doing such a program.”
The program at Angola is facilitated by New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.
At Leavenworth, tuition is free. Harrison anticipates additional courses in the future being taught by students and faculty from Midwestern’s doctoral program, but for now Sutton and Crowell volunteer their time, teaching classes at the prison that coincide with Midwestern’s academic calendar.
“A sense of accomplishment does more to these men than you or I could possibly imagine,” Harrison said. “It lifts them up and gives them hope that they can do more than commit crimes. We see it as a venue to help them do what Christ wants and not be guided by sinful desires or negative peer pressure.”
Students at the Leavenworth CLD center can take classes such as Old Testament and New Testament surveys, biblical interpretation, Baptist history and practice, personal evangelism and discipleship, the Pentateuch, the Gospels, Christian doctrines, and worldviews.
After pairing 15 credit hours of foundational core with 15 credit hours in a biblical studies concentration, students will receive a diploma in Christian ministry that is transferrable to Midwestern’s bachelor of arts program. The diploma also will give Christian inmates who are due for release an opportunity to further their education once they reenter society.
“We are encouraging them to take this step of getting a diploma to see the benefit of Christian education,” Sutton said. “Some feel called to ministry, others are excited about their faith and just want to learn all that they can.”
The courses minister to and equip a wide range of students.
“We have quite an eclectic group from pastors’ children to men who have never been inside a church,” Sutton said. “Ages range from mid-20s to early 60s. Ethnic groups include black, white and Hispanic.”
As a whole, the program is geared toward Christian inmates, both those who previously accepted Christ but experienced a period of backsliding as well as those who trusted the Lord after their incarceration.
“Some of the inmates trusted Christ as children in Vacation Bible School, Sunday School or a youth ministry and yet were never discipled in the Word of God,” Harrison said. “These classes provide students with the biblical foundation for life and ministry.”
In addition to the invaluable gift of hope and the material reward of credit hours, Sutton said the program ultimately offers the students a more complete picture of Christianity.
“All of the men in classes and all of the men who come to church here embrace the idea of forgiveness, but counting the cost of discipleship is another story,” Sutton said. “I believe that through this educational experience men will be afforded the opportunity to consider all of what Christianity entails.”
Austin Mayfield is a writer for Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Mo.