In May, a class of 34 TDCJ offenders graduated from the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary Darrington Extension of the J. Dalton Havard School for Theological Studies, located at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s Darrington Unit in Rosharon. The commencement ceremony was held in the unit chapel and attended by seminary faculty and graduates, their families and friends, program supporters and agency staff.
Established in 2011, the Darrington Seminary is a nondenominational program sponsored by TDCJ, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention and the Heart of Texas Foundation. The program accepts a new class of around 40 offender-students every year, and trains them to serve as field ministers for other offenders. Graduates earn a Bachelor of Science in Biblical Studies by completing a four-year, 125 credit-hour curriculum. After completing their studies, participants are assigned to TDCJ prisons where they help chaplains minister and mentor other offenders, lead discipleship and Bible studies, minister to hospital and hospice patients, and provide grief counseling. This year’s graduating class will provide seven teams who will be assigned to prisons that have never had field ministers.
During the commencement ceremony, Texas Department of Criminal Justice Executive Director Bryan Collier thanked those responsible for the program’s success, including the staff and faculty of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, noting that they served as “the boots on the ground delivering the curriculum that matters to the men.” Collier also thanked TDCJ’s Rehabilitation Programs Division employees and Darrington Unit Senior Warden Stephen Bryant, his officers and unit staff whose “work every day requires diligence on your part to make sure this program doesn’t get interrupted by the things that we do in the system.”
Collier pointed out that these field ministers possess a unique advantage when working with offenders, noting that “I don’t have it, our chaplains don’t have it, a lot of our volunteers don’t have it. You’ve got credibility with your peers in the system, and that’s what matters. You’ve walked in their shoes, you’ve been where they are, you know that path, and you’ve seen a different path.” He concluded by assuring the new field ministers that their ministry work is valued: “As you walk the path, I want you to hear this from me directly: I absolutely fully support your mission. At TDCJ we fully support what you’re doing, our wardens fully support what you’re doing, and we are on the same team. We’re excited about the changes that your work is going to bring.”
Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick addressed the assembly via video and praised the positive effect of the seminary’s work: “After five graduation classes we have 162 inmates who are going out to other prisons to change lives of other inmates. What a powerful victory for the Lord and what a great accomplishment for you. We have a remarkable 84 percent graduation rate; that’s a higher graduation rate than many colleges and universities outside the prison walls.”
To qualify for the program, potential students must possess a high school diploma or a GED, have a clean disciplinary record for the past year and at least 10 years remaining before their earliest release date. While most rehabilitation programs teach inmates how to reintegrate into society, the seminary program is for offenders who want to do good work while serving their sentence. Program applicants are screened by Chaplaincy staff and seminary representatives before being accepted and, after enrollment, students must follow a strict code of conduct.
Texas Board of Criminal Justice Member E.F. “Mano” DeAyala, who chairs the Community Corrections Committee and is a member of the Rehabilitation and Reentry Programs committee, brought a message of gratitude to the assembly, thanking those who work in support of the program and noting that “with TDCJ the main objective is that of public safety. I can’t think of any act or commitment that’s more conducive to public safety than to give your lives to Jesus Christ, and then taking the next step to bring others to give their lives to Jesus Christ.”
The Darrington Seminary program began after members of the Texas Legislature, along with TDCJ and seminary officials visited the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola which had the nation’s only in-prison seminary at the time. Once a dangerous prison, Angola’s culture improved drastically after the seminary program was introduced, with a significant reduction in offender violence.
No taxpayer money is spent in support of the seminary program; private donations and grants pay faculty salaries and provide computers, books and other teaching materials.