Baylor studies seminaries behind bars

By Jocelyn Fowler


Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion has been given a $1.3 million grant by Premier Foto, a subsidiary of Premier Designs, to study the effects of seminary programs in prisons.

The study, which is the first of its kind, will follow anecdotal reports stemming from the Louisiana State Penitentiary commonly known as Angola. Over the past 17 years, Angola, regarded as one of the toughest maximum-security prisons in the nation, has reportedly seen dramatic decreases in the violence that once defined the prison. The reformation of the Angola prison is said to be the result of the Angola Bible College, a seminary program established by former warden Burl Cain in 1995.

The five-year study will monitor the Angola seminary program as well as the recently established Darrington Bible College at the Darrington Unit in Rosharon.

According to Byron Johnson, the director of the Institute for Studies of Religion, the story of Angola is renowned, but no scientific studies have yet been conducted to confirm or deny the legitimacy of the prison’s claims.

“The idea is to test the proposition that what people think is happening is happening,” Johnson said. “The last thing people think about is to do research because they just assume that it works, but we don’t know that it works.”

Dr. Sung Joon Jang, an associate professor of sociology and co-principal investigator of the study, echoed Johnson’s concerns about supporting programs that have yet to prove useful. According to Jang, numerous rehabilitative programs in prison systems have been unsuccessful in their endeavors.

“Our criminal justice system has not been, really, doing a great job in terms of helping convicted criminals live a changed life after serving their sentence,” Jang said. “One broad, really general topic that we attend to address is the recidivism, reoffending, issue.”

Jang said recidivism rates in the United States are extremely high, averaging about 50 to 60 percent depending on the offense. Recidivism rates refer to the number of convicts who get out of jail and then are sent back due to new offenses. It is a sign, Jang said, that current rehabilitative methods are not working.

“There are all kinds of programs, like you may have heard of boot camps in prisons. They don’t work. We have done research on those; they’re abysmal failures,” Johnson said. “There are other programs that we’ve used in prison, like Scared Straight, that absolutely do not work. Some of these programs cause harm and can even be counterproductive.”

Jang proposed seminary programs can supplement the current rehabilitative programs often found in the prison systems. Secular programs paid for with tax dollars, such as general equivalency diploma (G.E.D.) programs and technical skill courses, fail to initiate the fundamental change often needed to counteract recidivism, Jang believes. A fundamental change, Jang said, begins with the moral intropections many religions require. Seminary programs, funded by private sources, will introduce what Jang refers to as “restorative justice” in the criminal justice system.

“What is missing in what we tried before is that we did not help and encourage those criminals to find more fundamental motivation to change their lives,” Jang said. “These prison seminaries are institutions where prison inmates may have a really good opportunity to think about who they are and what kind of responsibility they have.”

Although formal research has not been done on seminary programs in prisons, previous studies into other faith-based prison programs reveal a positive correlation between the two variables.

According to a Baylor press release on Tuesday, “Empirical evidence shows inmates completing faith-based prison programs like the InnerChange Freedom Initiative in Texas and Minnesota are ‘significantly less likely to return to prison than comparable inmates who did not participate in such a program’.”

If the purported positive correlation proves true, Johnson and Jang believe the implications are tremendous: Trained ministers may be transported to rowdier prison populations to quell dissent and a larger share of released criminals may finally be truly rehabilitated.