The Memorial Seminary Program begun in 2011 is unique to all but one other prison in America. This free education comes at no cost to taxpayers but is taken care of by the Heart of Texas Foundation. It was modeled after that of the Louisiana State Penitentiary’s at Angola, LA led by Warden Burl Cain. Warden Cain, the longest sitting warden in America, says “We can educate, train, and teach trades and skills, but without the moral component, without a change in their hearts, we are just making smarter criminals.”
The men of the Memorial Seminary will change the Texas prison system from the inside out, and from the bottom up. That is what has happened at the Angola penitentiary as a result of their Seminary, its entirely private funding, and their state officials allowing the effort. Their violence rate has dropped nearly 75% since their Seminary opened. What was once known as “America’s Bloodiest Prison” is now one of America’s safest prisons.
"We are seeing men transformed in a way that is nothing short of miraculous," said Ben Phillips, Ph.D., with Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary's Houston Campus. Phillips is the Director of the Prison Seminary. More than 150 inmates are working to earn a Bachelor of Science in Biblical Studies in four years from the program. "We're looking for men who can take what they learned and be salt and light inside the prison so that the culture itself begins to change," Phillips added.
In May of 2015 the prison made headlines when the first 33 inmates graduated from the seminary. The degrees were awarded in an emotional ceremony that brought tears from students and their families. In May of 2017, Darrington will proudly graduate its third seminary class.
In coming weeks, the men, most of them serving terms that likely will keep them behind bars for the rest of their lives, will be assigned to Texas prisons, where they will assist chaplains. These men are expected to provide positive, religious role models to inmates who someday will return to the "free world."
"It helps them flourish as human beings," Phillips said of the program. "...We've seen guys realize their faith in terms of traditional ministry - prayer, sharing scripture - but in other ways as well. They help others put together parole papers or resumes. When done with the right heart and to good ends, even the guys who would never want to preach a sermon, can honor God by serving the men around them."
One class of 33-36 students has graduated every year in May since 2015. As of 2019, 183 men with long prison sentences have completed their full coursework while at the Memorial Unit and received the Bachelor of Arts in Applied Ministry—a dually accredited degree from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) and the Association of Theological Schools (ATS) accrediting bodies. The Field Ministers Training Center at Memorial maintains the highest standards of accreditation, is privately funded, overseen and completely funded by The Heart of Texas Foundation.
Yesterday, when I was packing up my things and getting ready to depart the Memorial Unit after teaching on Alexander the Great and the rise of the Roman republic, a student in my class jokingly said to me, “I bet you never thought you’d be teaching a class full of convicts!” He was smiling broadly as he said this, and laughing. I laughed too, and replied, “To be honest with you, brother, it wasn’t the first thought that occurred to me!”
This exchange pinpoints an unstated reality that has existed in my own mind since I first drove up to the front gate at the Memorial Unit in Rosharon, Texas.
There are four checkpoints upon entering my classroom. Security officers check and hold my driver’s license, open and examine the contents of my briefcase, have me empty my pockets and take off my shoes, and physically pat me down, even checking the soles of my shoeless feet every time I enter the premises. All of us on the faculty were briefed on procedures for hostage situations, riot outbreaks, recognizing manipulation, understanding gangs, contraband, and counseling victims of sexual abuse prior to the start of the academic year.
None of this is discussed in The Chicago Guide to Your Academic Career.
Still, of the thirty-nine students (the official designation is “offenders”) that are in my class, I can honestly say that every single one of them treats me with a level of respect that I have rarely encountered in twenty years of teaching and pastoral ministry. To describe their attitude about the course as enthusiastic would be slight. This is a group of students who, on the whole, are fully engaged in every aspect of the material. They react to every reading assignment—some positive, some negative—and they articulate their reasons for their reactions. They ask so many questions during the lectures that I am already behind on my course schedule—but I cannot in good conscience curtail this. Their dialogue with me during the lectures is critical to their understanding and beneficial to everyone in the classroom, including myself, in bringing clarity to the material. At the breaks, they file into a queue to ask me questions and make points. At the end of class, I spend at least an hour continuing to dialogue with them on the day’s lectures and discussions. One of my students asked if he could be allowed to write a second eight page critical book review, in addition to the one he is already writing on the Aeneid.
Not only are they in profound earnest about their studies, they are overflowing in their expressions of faith and worship of God. We conclude every prayer with a recitation of Psalm 118:17. They vociferously declare in one voice, “I shall not die, but live!” Yesterday, their voices boomed and echoed throughout the entire educational wing as we sang “My Hope is in the Lord.” What a thrill it is to be in the presence of such men.
I have never encountered an entire group of students like this anywhere I have been a student myself, or anywhere I have taught in my memory. What a profound honor; what a unique privilege is mine, not only as a teacher, but as a human being in the position to behold God’s hand so clearly at the work of redemption in the lives of persons.