Despite the elimination of most prison visitations for many months during the COVID-19 pandemic, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary has found ways to stay connected with prisoner students at the Louisiana Penitentiary in Angola.
Rick Sharkey, senior chaplain at the maximum security prison in Angola and director of the New Orleans Seminary’s extension center on the prison grounds, said classes were canceled in March 2020 and started again in November, with the 2021 semester beginning in January. Since the reopening, a masked professor has visited weekly, standing in an auditorium and teaching students — also wearing masks — in classes on subjects including church history, English composition and introduction to ministry.
The program, which dates to 1995 and has 368 graduates, currently includes 68 undergraduates and 45 graduate students.
Sharkey said that even when Angola inmates couldn’t be taught due to the pandemic, there were already trained ministers among them. More than 200 inmates — mostly taught through the seminary’s program — are leaders of dozens of churches among the prisoner population of about 5,100.
“The spiritual needs of the men were still being met by the inmate ministers that were all throughout the prison,” he said. “That’s exactly what the purpose of the school is all about: preparing men for ministry and strengthening the churches that are inside here.”
Education prepares inmates for future
Across the country, there are roughly 300 higher education programs in prisons, both religious and nonreligious, according to Lois Davis, a senior policy researcher at the nonprofit Rand Corp.
Each one has grappled this past year with whether to allow outside instructors into prison facilities to hold classes as states took action to slow the spread of COVID-19, Davis said. Some facilities ceased or substantially cut back on programming. Some educational programs suspended classes until they can be held again in person, while others found ways to adapt, such as videoconferencing.
One study by Rand found that incarcerated people who participated in those kinds of educational programs had 43% lower odds of recidivating than those who did not.
Such programs have their root in religion: Clergyman William Rogers is credited with starting the U.S. correctional education movement when he taught inmates in a Philadelphia jail in 1789.
And they are something “all of higher education can embrace,” Council for Christian Colleges & Universities President Shirley V. Hoogstra said.
She pointed to the positive effect such educational programs have on prisoners, their families and their communities, as well as Jesus’ words in Matthew 25: “I was in prison and you came to visit me.”
“An education recognizes the God-given dignity of all individuals. It provides a fresh start. And it provides the confidence to face a new future and look candidly at the past,” Hoogstra added.