For the first time in the North Carolina prison system, a graduation ceremony was held for 24 inmates who have completed a four-year Bachelor of Arts degree in pastoral ministry. The two dozen inmates proudly stepped upon the stage of the Nash Correctional gym last week to collect their diplomas and start a new chapter of their lives behind bars.
They were even congratulated by Danny Akin, president of the College at Southeastern, the undergraduate school of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and posed for a photo.
According to the Christian Headlines, about half of the two dozen inmates will live out the rest of their lives behind bars with no change of parole, but will now serve as ministers to their fellow prisoners. The group are among the inaugural class of inmates to earn a four-year degree from an accredited school and have put in the time to study Hebrew, Greek, theology, counseling and the history of ideas.
The result was a group of 24 inmates graduating with honors, with three of them achieving a perfect 4.0 grade point average. The next part of their journey is preaching across North Carolina's 55 prisons as they serve the rest of their sentences.
"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," Akin said during his graduation address, adding that he was "honored beyond words" to have his name written on the two dozen inmates' diplomas.
The pastoral ministry degree program is part of a new movement of evangelical seminaries, colleges and universities to rehabilitate prisoners through education. Across the United States, there are at least 17 evangelical schools offering 23 degree programs in different prisons. This is according to the Prison Seminary Foundation, a Christian nonprofit that supports such programs.
North Carolina Department of Public Safety superintendent for prison education Julie Jailall remarked that the program "could very well be a template for post-secondary higher education in prison. It meets all expectations for what a prison education program should be."
Jailall added that the program's exemplary 80% rate of completion was a good outcome. The first ever class had three inmates, but three dropped out and three others will graduate with next year's cohort. Once the three others graduate, the completion rate will increase to 90%.
According to the Religion News Service, the two dozen inmates will not be expected to preach or convert their fellow prisoners to Christianity in their new positions as field ministers as the prison system disallows promoting one faith over the others, Jailall explained. However, the two dozen inmates will be able to counsel and mentor prisoners and urge them to find ways for self improvement.
The new ministers will also be co-teaching a class called "Thinking for a Change," which the report described as a "cognitive-behavioral curriculum developed by the National Institute of Corrections, which encourages a better prison environment with less violence and conflict.
One of the two dozen inmates, Kirston Marshall Angell, admitted that he was "ecstatic" to journey to a maximum security prison in western North Carolina where he will work with new prisoners aged 18 to 25 to adjust to their new lives behind bars.
Angell, a 32 year old who is serving a 40 year sentence for second-degree murder, said he has "grown out of myself" and has "learned to set myself aside and favor others."
The new inmate-turned-minister remarked, "That's what this program has called us to."