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Bible College Helps Some at Louisiana Prison Find Peace

By Erik Eckholm - The New York Times

ANGOLA, La. — Like most of his fellow inmates, Daryl Walters, 45, can expect to spend the rest of his days in the infamous prison on a former slave plantation here. He was sentenced to life without parole for a murder more than 20 years ago in a state where a life sentence means just that.

Angola is home to Louisiana’s sprawling state penitentiary. 

 Image courtesy staugustine.com

Yet there he was on a recent evening, preaching the Gospel to 200 men in a spired church in the heart of the Louisiana State Penitentiary, talking salvation and joy to murderers and rapists and robbers who waved their arms to an inmate band’s Christian worship music.

“God is merciful,” intoned Mr. Walters, an assistant pastor at one of many churches scattered through this maximum-security prison, informally known as Angola. “God gives us so many benefits.”

Mr. Walters is a graduate of one of the most unusual prison programs in the country: a Southern Baptist Bible college inside this sprawling facility, offering bachelor’s degrees in a rigorous four-year course that includes study of Greek and Hebrew as well as techniques for “sidewalk ministry” that inmates can practice in their dorms and meal lines.

There are 241 graduates so far, nearly all lifers who live and work among their peers. Dozens of graduates have even moved as missionaries to counsel or preach in other prisons.

But Burl Cain, the warden since 1995, says the impact has gone well beyond spreading religion among the inmates. He calls the Bible college central to the transformation of Angola from one of the most fearsome prisons in the country to one of the more mellow, at least for those deemed to be cooperative. Watching men quietly saunter from open dormitories to church, many with Bible in hand and dressed in T-shirts of their choice, it can hardly seem like a maximum-security facility, although multiple daily lineups for inmate counts are a reminder.

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(First published by The New York Times)