Texas' newest seminary will launch Monday -- inside a Texas prison.A Statesman story on the initiative by Mike Ward declared:
It starts with 40 inmates who will be trained at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's Darrington Unit in Rosharon, about 300 miles southeast of Fort Worth.
Fort Worth's Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary will play a big role in the seminary, as will the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention and the Heart of Texas Foundation, as co-sponsors of the nondenominational program.
After inmates finish the 125-credit-hour program over four years, they receive bachelor's degrees in biblical studies and are sent to other Texas prisons, where they "minister to their fellow offenders," according to a release.
"The opportunity to provide education and growth for those in a prison unit .. is the opportunity to enable these inmates to discover a significant new way that through study will change life, perspective and hope for hundreds," said Paige Patterson, president of the Fort Worth seminary.
prison officials and supporters say that by making the program voluntary and without a denominational focus — much like another faith-based rehabilitation program operated for prisoners for more than a decade and now highly acclaimed at another nearby prison — any such issues have been avoided.Ward points out an interesting distinction between the seminary idea from other rehabilitation programs: "Unlike most current prison rehabilitation programs, the initiative is not designed for convicts who are about to be released or paroled. Instead, its participants are serving long sentences, most for violent crimes, and most will be behind bars for many additional years — if not the rest of their lives." Ward adds that "The cost to taxpayers: zero. Private grants and donations will pay all expenses of the seminary, which is patterned after a highly acclaimed minister-training program in Louisiana, officials said."
In fact, Texas offers religious programs at all of its 111 state prisons and has faith-based programs and initiatives involving more than 2,700 convicts at 24 of them.
On one hand I can understand the impetus. Since the invention of the penitentiary religious reformers have believed prisons should actively seek to promote spiritual transformation. On the other, I'm not sure there's evidence religious education benefits prisoners more than the educational initiatives recently gutted at the Windham School District in TDCJ, and clearly there's nobody out there beating the bushes for "private grants and donations" to keep those programs running.
Another thing: Though the stories say the program will be non-denominational, the Southwestern Theological Seminary in Fort Worth was the site of a major fight between fundamentalist Baptist factions and less dogmatic religious scholars including Russel Dilday, the moderate president who was ousted by fundamentalists in 1994 for not toeing the hardest possible theological line. He even wrote a book (really a collection of columns) about the incident, titled "Glimpses of a seminary under assault." Can we really expect the trustees of an institution still ruled by the same faction that ousted Dilday to hew to a non-denominational, non-fundamentalist doctrine? For how long?
Relatedly, I wonder if the same deference would be granted when some Muslim sheikhs from Saudi Arabia or Pakistan show up and want to start a madrasah in TDCJ at no "cost to the taxpayer." If that happened, I'm guessing, the enthusiasm level among state officials wouldn't be nearly so high.