Tanya Erzen takes us inside the prison seminary experiment sweeping through the South’s most notorious prisons. Carefully braided reflections from incarcerated people, administrators and instructors illuminate not only the fraught history of religion and incarceration, but also what if any bearing “redemption as a missionary” has on actual, physical freedom.
In the Prison of New Beginnings
In the South’s bloodiest prisons, Baptists say they can reform prisoners by turning them into missionaries.
By Tanya Erzen | October 15, 2014 | Guernica
On a steamy May morning south of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Erica Bowers Welch, a 46-year-old mother of eight and grandmother of three, debated the Book of Jeremiah in her Old Testament college class at the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women (LCIW). She listened intently as her professor reviewed information for their final exam, which would take place the following week. With her sharp cheekbones, accentuated by hair piled high on her head, Erica exuded a flair that defied the drabness of her prison-issued blue shirt. She sat with her twenty-three classmates at battered tables in the chapel classroom. A map of Jerusalem in the time of Jesus was the only thing disrupting the cinderblock monotony of the walls.
Jeremiah, explained Dr. Kristi Miller, is a book about being oppressed by a foreign power (the Babylonians) but also about how faith in God freed the Israelites. “God does not play with those who oppress others for their own gain. It is a message against people in power. God takes seriously those who abuse their position of power,” she explained. The lesson seemed unusually apt for a maximum-security prison setting.
As Erica and others listened, Dr. Miller drilled them with potential exam questions. “How long were they in captivity in Chapter 25?” The class answered automatically: “Seventy years.” There were a lot of murmurs and sighs. Erica is over a decade into a forty-seven-year sentence, and most of the other women are lifers without even the possibility of parole. Most of them will die here. When Erica finishes her bachelor’s degree in Christian ministry next year as part of the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary’s (NOBTS) first graduating class, she won’t return to the free world. She and her classmates will be sent forth to spread the word of God and, the seminary hopes, reduce violence throughout the vast Southern prison archipelago.
The prison seminary is part of an experiment sweeping through some of the most notorious prisons in the South. In Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi, Georgia, Florida, and elsewhere, Baptists and prison administrators are molding an army of prisoner missionaries. In the past, these prisons were the epicenter for punitive incarceration. Most of them are former slave plantations or convict-leasing farms where bodies were measured solely in profit and loss. Now these prisons are at the vanguard of a movement where belief in the necessity of punishment coexists with the hope for an individual prisoner’s redemption. The seminary’s idea of freedom for a prisoner is for them to find Jesus and convert others without ever leaving prison.