Phillips State Prison has fostered various academic programs that lead to a general education diploma. Historically, this prison’s programs have included remedial literacy, special education, and basic adult education. It has recently moved beyond the high school education arena, however, to provide college level courses. Located in Buford, Georgia, Phillips State Prison is the site of the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary (NOBTS) Leavell College Extension Center that is geared to “prepare students for current ministry within the Georgia State prison system by providing offenders in prison and beyond incarceration opportunities to obtain AA and BA degrees in Christian Ministry,” according to a document posted by the Georgia Department of Corrections (dcor.state.ga.us/pdf/NOBTS.pdf).
According to the Georgia Department of Corrections, “The Extension Center will offer thirty inmates from the state of Georgia a two-year, seventy-six semester hour Associate degree in Christian Ministry and a four-year, 126-semester hour Bachelor of Arts in Christian Ministry.” The degrees are accredited and the coursework has been designed for inmates who want to engage study for the ministry. Sponsored by the Georgia Baptist Convention, the program at the Leavell College Extension Center is modeled after the NOBTS programs at Louisiana’s Angola State Penitentiary.
Aside from the prescribed hours needed to complete either program, students are also required to attend classes or study in the library for eight hours a day. Five classes a day are held in the program and students currently attend the same classes while enrolled in the program. To help support inmates in their studies, a tutoring program has been established; advanced students work as tutors to help program participants who are struggling or just beginning their studies. As the program is accredited, classes are instructed and taught at the college level. Students must maintain a C average or better or face academic probation and eventual removal from the program.
Benefits of the Program
The program has been designed to endow participating inmates with practicable skills that will benefit the rest of their lives. Some of the program’s key benefits include the promotion of a peaceful prison environment, a demonstrable reduction of violence, and reduced recidivism. Student inmates practice ministering and take classes that may lead to a viable future in the ministry. The program model has also been installed at Mississippi’s Parchman State Prison and led to a “40% reduction in violence since program implementation,” according to the Georgia Department of Corrections. Phillips State Prison is hoping that the program will achieve similar results as well.
Both the seminary and the prison have established criteria for inmate admission to this program. The seminary requires that inmates can provide proof of a high school diploma, a GED, or college coursework. Each applicant must provide a statement of their religious experience and “be prepared to spend 15 hours in class lecture and at least 30 hours in study per week.” Applicants aren’t required to be associated with any particular denomination; however, they must accept that coursework is taught in accordance with Baptist beliefs.
The prison mandates that the program is volunteer-based; that is, inmates submit their application of their own accord. In order to be considered for acceptance to the program, students must have a minimum of 5-7 years remaining on their prison sentences. While enrolled in the program, prisoners must be willing to forego requests for parole or early release. The inmate must not have incurred a disciplinary action within a year’s time before applying and must complete the application process in full. Chaplains or prison personnel are available to help inmates complete their applications.
Upon graduation, which will be held every other year, graduates will practice ministering within the prison. They may be expected to hold revival services and organize an appreciation program. They may also provide ministering for inmates with mental health issues as well as those struggling with homosexuality or those associated with gang activity. By gaining experience in the practice of ministry in prison, graduating inmates improve their chance to practice ministering upon their release. Inmates and prison personnel look forward to many graduating classes and hope to witness the many benefits that other participating prisons have achieved with their model of this program.