A seminary behind bars seeks to change Texas prison system

Fri Aug 15, 2014 12:53pm EDT
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By Jon Herskovitz

ROSHARON Texas (Reuters) - In a solitary confinement unit at a maximum-security prison in Texas, convicted murderer Troup Foster offers spiritual guidance to offenders as a part of a program designed to spark a cultural change in the country's largest prison system.

Foster, 52, is one of 34 offenders in the first class of a university seminary school set up at the state's Darrington Unit. He is about to enter his senior year and has found a niche as a "tier walker" who ministers to inmates in solitary and offers moral guidance to some of the state's most hardened criminals.

"A lot of these guys are going home, and the public has to deal with them. If we can change some of those men's lives now and put them on a better path when they leave here, the public is going to be safer," said Foster, who is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole.

"For me, I am probably going to die here."

The Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, a private college based in Fort Worth, Texas, began its bachelor of science in biblical studies program at Darrington, south of Houston, about three years ago. To be accepted, an offender has to be at least 10 years from the possibility of parole, have a good behavior record and the appropriate academic credentials to enroll in a college course.

The program, which is largely paid for by charitable contributions from the Heart of Texas Foundation, has more than 150 prisoners enrolled and plans to send its graduates as field ministers to other units who want the bible college alumni for peer counseling and spiritual guidance. The first degrees are expected to be conferred next year.

"These guys ... know that their seat can be lost because of their behavior," said Ben Phillips, director of the Darrington program and an associate professor at the Southwestern Seminary. "Guys tend to weed themselves out over time if they are not serious about it."

The program, based on a similar one at the Angola unit of the Louisiana penitentiary system, is aimed at reducing violence inside and recidivism for those who are released at no additional expense to taxpayers.   Continued...

An offender walks past a sign on a wall at the the Darrington Unit of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice men's prison in Rosharon, Texas August 12, 2014. REUTERS/Adrees Latif