A look at mass incarceration in Alabama — ninth in a series

Inmate seminary program brings Christ behind prison walls in Bibb County

By Martha Simmons
Correspondent, The Alabama Baptist

There’s a God Squad living behind bars and concertina wire at Bibb County Correctional Facility.

Wearing starched prison whites stenciled with their surnames are 10 men who recently graduated from Alabama’s first prison seminary program — the Birmingham Theological Seminary (BTS) Prison Initiative — and another 11 students enrolled in the second class.

Their goal is simple: To bring Christ behind the walls of cinderblock and steel and to offer His healing touch to the broken men serving time there.

Depending on whether they enter the course with a qualifying bachelor’s degree, inmates successfully completing their 2-year studies can earn either a master of arts or a certificate in biblical studies, said Thad James Jr., BTS vice president. Those achieving a master’s degree do about twice the work that the certificate students do, but the 2-year program is rigorous for both, taught by the same BTS professors who instruct free-world seminarians. 

The seminary credentials don’t make a whit of difference in how long the inmates’ sentences are, however. 

“They won’t get something put into their jacket that will help them be considered for early parole,” James said. Rather, they want to study the word of God in order to set their own souls free and be trained to minister to others. “He who has the Son is free indeed,” James said, referencing John 8:36.

In fact, inmates accepted into the program must have at least 7 years left to serve on their sentences in order to complete the 2-year seminary program and serve another 5 years in ministry. Some of them even plan to return to prison ministry once they have completed their sentences. 

James expressed deep gratitude to Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn for initiating the program and remaining supportive. The program receives no state dollars, however. It is funded entirely through faith-based donations, with Briarwood Presbyterian Church, which serves as BTS headquarters, contributing substantially to the $50,000 per year cost to equip students and classrooms with books, computers and the like, and to pay the adjunct professors who teach the inmates each weekday in the prison chapel. 

Plans are in the works to expand the program’s reach beyond Bibb County Correctional. Each seminary graduate has drawn a partner and there are plans to “send them out two by two,” James said, transferring them into other state prisons so they can minister to inmates there. But such things take time. Meanwhile, their ministry bears fruit behind the walls of the Brent prison.

In addition to serving as teaching assistants and mentoring to current BTS students, the graduates minister to the general population by providing Bible studies, doing open-air preaching in the prison yard and providing one-on-one discipleship opportunities with other inmates. They have rescued fellow inmates from violence, sat up with inmates overdosing on drugs and even paid off a debt owed by one prisoner to another, telling the debtor, “Like Christ paid the ransom for us, we paid the ransom for you,” James said.

Being the first such class comes with extra responsibility, the inmates recognize.

“All eyes are on us,” said Michael Morgan, emphasizing that the seminary students and graduates must demonstrate fundamental transformation of themselves if they are to be believed and emulated by others. “If you don’t change, you’re doomed to repeat. You have to heal from within. You have to want it in here,” he said, placing his hand on his heart. “It’s got to be real.”

Learning to trust

Trust comes slowly, especially in prison, but both fellow inmates and prison officials are coming to trust that the seminary graduates are, as teaching assistant Russell Booth said, “living for and as Christ.” Their influence is felt in the peaceful environment in their dorms, and their positive influence on other inmates.

John Tolbert was, he said, “tore up from the floor up” when he started doing time. However, at some point he decided it was time for him to start serving others. 

“I thank God for using us to minister to the people in this campus and to eventually go out into other campuses,” he said.

Tolbert said seminary taught him four keys to successful living that he wants to share with his fellow inmates:

  • Reject passivity
  • Accept responsibility
  • Lead courageously
  • Invest eternally

“That’s what we’ve been really called to do,” Tolbert said. “Pour into them what was poured into us in the seminary.”

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Inmate seminary students talk about their spiritual journey

Here’s what the inmates in the Birmingham Theological Seminary Prison Initiative at Bibb County Correctional have to say about their walk with God while behind bars and what they want people in the free world to know.

Why they study the Word

“When I first came to prison I didn’t know myself. The gospel of Jesus Christ saved my life. I now have a burning desire to become a minister.” 

—Victor Allen

“I’ve known Jesus Christ as my personal savior since childhood. But I had a lot of questions. I wanted a deeper understanding. I’m seeking a higher theology so that I can lead others in the right direction and have the knowledge to do that with as little error as possible.”

— Ben McCool

“I wanted to change myself to help others younger than me to do the right thing. I’ve influenced younger guys to do the wrong thing. Now is my chance to change that.”

— Cornell Nobles

“I was a believer in the street, but I wasn’t rooted in God. This is my opportunity to get rooted, to get grounded in the faith. This prison environment … whew! It’s difficult. But it’s not impossible in Christ.”

— Herbert Oliphant

“I know we’ve hurt people on the outside but we’re hurting too. Those hurts need to be healed. We need that restoration.”

— Unis Parker

What people of faith should know

“I want to be a positive leader in my community and give back to my neighborhood. When we get out a lot of us will have to mend relationships. These guys here in the seminary program are my brothers. We’re going to need that (same kind of brotherhood) when we get out.”

— Patrick Johnson

“I had a solid faith before I got here, but I let Christ down. Prison can be a pretty hopeless place. I want to be someone people could look to for a solid hope in Christ.”

— Emmanual Yarbrough

“Love and compassion are things I never saw on the street or when I was a prisoner in jail. Now I think of the song, ‘They know me by my number, but Jesus knows my name.’”

— Kenneth Skelton

“God created us to live in community. When you isolate us in prison, there’s a ripple effect in our families and in the community. Be patient. Real change takes time. Have hope for us.”

— Unis Parker

“I had to lose everything I had before God could touch me. I hope people can judge me in good faith and let me build up accountability and responsibility. All believers are called to have acceptance of people. In God and Christ all things are possible and people do change.”

— Michael Morgan

How to help

Volunteers and donations from other churches and denominations are needed to support and expand the BTS Prison Initiative. Anyone interested in donating or becoming involved may contact James at tjames@briarwood.org or 205-776-5386.