Ruth Graham Volunteers at the New Mississippi Jail Seminary
In the wake of states slashing prison spending by billions, desperate prison officials are launching a Hail Mary.
“The American prison system is on the verge of collapsing,” said Michael hallett, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of North Florida who has studied prisons for more than two decades. “There is severe overcrowding, widespread mental illness, high levels of post-traumatic stress disorder, almost non-existent programming levels, extreme violence, ruthless sentences, corrosive staff turnover and costly recidivism.”
In the face of these gigantic woes, correctional officials are turning to religious volunteers to provide education, skills training and other programs that states refuse to fund, he said. “We are in a total crisis.”
Now responsible for a reduced budget of $ 66 million since 2014, Mississippi Corrections Commissioner Burl Cain is looking for the same answers he said he saved Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola while he was director the.
This includes the opening of the state’s first penitentiary seminar for women in Mississippi Correctional Center in Pearl. The women’s seminar is only the third of its kind, the first two to come to Louisiana and Georgia.
Nationwide, the number of prison seminars is increasing, now at 23, Hallett said. There are 37 other hybrid programs that offer religious education.
Angolan seminary graduates have become everything from grief counselors and caregivers to literacy trainers. Cain said he was working to do the same in Mississippi.
“If you really want to touch their souls, you’ve got to have the preacher there all the time,” he said. “Then when their wives leave them or they have a death in the family, the minister can sit with them all night.”
Religious programming in prison has a positive impact, says expert
Hallett, who has studied the Angolan experience for five years, concluded that “religious programming makes prison more humane and radically better. At the time of the opening of the seminar, the prison was struggling with dwindling resources and increasing violence.
He criticized heads of state for abdicating their responsibilities and expecting volunteers to catch up.
Hallett, who calls himself a “peace church Catholic,” doesn’t believe religious programs should be coercive, and he said it could be if it was the only option.
But there is no doubt about the results, he said. In student six seminars along with other professors, they found lower disciplinary rates of seminary students and graduates. Religious practice in churches run by prison inmates was also associated with reduced inmate misconduct.
He remembers interviewing a seminary graduate who had been a drug lord: “He told me, ‘I am freer today in Angola than I ever would have been on the streets of Baton Rouge. “
Burl Cain remade Angola in his image:Can he do the same with the notorious Parchman?
Ruth Graham speaks to Mississippi inmates
He praised those who give their time to improve the lives of prisoners, including Ruth graham, the daughter of famous evangelist Billy Graham.
She spoke through Zoom last week to the 29 women at the New Mississippi Seminary as well as 46 men attending Parchman Seminary, which opened in 2009.
“We want to say that Jesus is working and putting on that happy face and saying that our lives are together,” she said in an interview with MCIR. “We put on this mask, and yet underneath are all these problems. We say we don’t have these problems, but we do. “
The four-year accredited seminars are privately funded and run by the Leavell College of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. To qualify, inmates must spend at least an additional 10 years behind bars, stay safe from rule violations, and have a high school diploma or equivalent.
Graham said his involvement in prison ministries started by accident. In one Trip 2009 at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, she visited prisoners on death row.
“I felt woefully inadequate,” she recalls. “What did I have to say as a white suburban bride?”
When she arrived in the first cell, she met an inmate named Michael, who shook her hand and asked if he could sing a song to her.
She said yes.
He sang the hymn, “It’s good with my soul.” She saw his peace, the peace that had sometimes eluded her, and tears came to her eyes.
Then he asked if he could give her something.
She said yes.
He handed her a cross which he had woven from the threads of several sheets.
“ I had to learn forgiveness, ” says Ruth Graham
When news of her visit to Angola spread, she heard of a missionary whose granddaughter had been murdered by Michael. The missionary had forgiven Michael and wanted to know if he was also going to be in Heaven.
At that point, “I realized I didn’t understand what forgiveness was,” Graham said. “Forgiveness is sacred. Forgiveness is holy. It’s when we step into the very nature of God. “
When she called Angola to check on Michael, she learned that he was due to be executed soon.
The day he died from a fatal injection, she prayed for him again and felt reassured to see Michael again one day.
Her woven cross is still hanging on her wall, a reminder of forgiveness.
“I had to learn forgiveness and forgive myself,” she said. “After four failed marriages, I wondered what was wrong with me. Why did I keep making the same mistake? Have I even been saved?
One day, as she was fighting, she realized that as a little girl she had felt abandoned. But she said she never blamed her father for “being my hero”. She now realizes that she “has been looking for security all my life, for something to fill this place.”
What goes on inside these prisons changes lives, she said. “This is not about reform; it is a question of transformation. “
Jerry Mitchell is an investigative reporter for the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, a non-profit news organization. Send an email to [email protected] You can follow it on Facebook or Twitter.