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New Orleans Seminary Prison Program Models Kingdom Living
By Michael J. Brooks
BUFORD, Ga. (Judson College) — The director of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary’s bachelor’s degree program at Phillips State Prison in Buford, Ga., calls the program “incarnational.”
“Jesus came to the most depraved–all of us sinners–and modeled what kingdom living is all about,” said Dr. Jeffrey Farmer.
“In prison we work with inmates who will incarnate the life of Christ and minister to others inside these walls.”
Farmer is the fourth director of the Phillips program which is part of the seminary’s Leavell College, and he currently oversees the second group of students in their degree program. The inaugural class graduated in 2009 and graduates are now disbursed throughout the Georgia prison system serving as assistants to prison chaplains or in other ministries.
Many advocates of prison reform point to the alarming rate of recidivism. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, up to two-thirds of inmates are rearrested within three years of their release from prison. The Phillips program is one attempt to rehabilitate prisoners.
“We don’t just educate,” Farmer said, “we rehabilitate. If we don’t rehabilitate, then all we have is smarter criminals! We want our graduates to model Christian behavior and to be missionaries for Christian culture.”
Professors from the New Orleans extension “hub” in Atlanta are most often enlisted for teaching, including Farmer, and adjuncts are brought in as needed.
“We’re limited in class size to 28 or 29,” Farmer explained. “That’s all we have room for. Inmates from around the state apply for admission and must have endorsements from their chaplain and other prison staff. Our local screening committee selects men for the program and we have a long waiting list.”
Farmer explained the ideal seminary candidate has at least 10 years remaining in his sentence so that after graduation he can minister for four to five years in a prison. Upon release many of the graduates hope to serve in local churches or to start churches.
For this reason, Farmer explained, no sex offenders are admitted to the program since they wouldn’t be able to work in churches.
“Some of the Phillips students have very long sentences,” Farmer said,” and may not be released. They are, nevertheless, committed to serving Christ in prison.”
One of the Phillips students admitted to “syllabus shock” when he was admitted to the program and saw how much work is required.
“We tend to get mentally lazy in prison, but I’m working hard to make good grades,” he said. “I have better writing skills and am learning to do better speaking.”
Another student said that he was raised in a Baptist church and was baptized at 11 or 12. He quit school as a teen-ager and fell into a life of crime.
“I’ve been in prison for six years,” he said, “and it’s been a good thing for me. I earned my GED in prison and through the Kairos ministry, learned about the New Orleans classes. It’s a challenging program, but it’s helped me draw close to God.”
A third student explained that after a few days of violence in 1997 he received a 50 year prison sentence. At age 50 with 35 years remaining, he has little hope for release. But in prison he found Christ.
“I prayed, ‘Jesus, if you’re real and want what’s left of my sorry excuse for a life, you can have it.'”
The inmate said the New Orleans program has been life-altering.
“Prison tests a man through a multitude of adversities, disappointments and temptations,” he said, “But I feel called of God to minister to the men here and to make a positive difference in the lives of those around me.”
This student now works as an aide in the mental health ward of the prison.
New Orleans sponsors three other prison programs in the Southeast including those at the Louisiana State Prison (also known as Angola), the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women at St. Gabriel and the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman. Since no Cooperative Program funds are used in these programs, the seminary relies on benefactors with interest in the work.
Farmer said Baylor University became interested in the Angola program and is now conducting statistical research.
“When this study is completed, we’ll have our first longitudinal research data about how we’re doing in rehabilitation and how we can improve,” Farmer said.
“We’re grateful that the Georgia Department of Corrections and the staff at Phillips are so supportive of our work as we try to impact the Kingdom of God.”