Author: Jerry Higgins
The ongoing pandemic temporarily halted in-person educational programs in every state prison due to restrictions placed on outside visitation by instructors, as well as community colleges stopping classes. But it did not stop the N.C. Field Minister Program from moving forward into its fourth year at Nash Correctional Institution.
The College at Southeastern, the undergraduate school of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, worked with state prisons to continue classes this year through online learning for offenders already in the program. The college established correspondence classes this fall for offenders starting the program in other facilities until the offenders can transfer to Nash CI. And, graduation for the first four-year class is scheduled for May 2021.
“Working around COVID-19 has been a challenge,” said Dr. Seth Bible, the director of prison programs at Southeastern. “There was great collaboration between state IT and Southeastern. We went through all the security protocols for synchronous learning (online/distance education in real time). This is one of two programs in the country using synchronous learning (in a prison setting). Nash has had no positive cases of COVID-19, so we were able to do spring and summer (distance) classes using social distancing in three different classrooms (with no more than 10 in a class).”
The program is a privately-funded, four-year college-level educational program that allows offenders to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree in pastoral ministry, with a secondary emphasis in counseling and psychology. The degree is the same program offered on the college campus and is fully accredited. The classes are taught by Southeastern instructors, who in non-pandemic times travel to Nash CI and teach the courses on-site.
The program not only provides a four-year, college-level educational program to offenders housed at Nash CI, but also prepares graduates to become “field ministers” and provide “pastoral care and counseling” to offenders at other NCDPS facilities. The students are offenders serving sentences ranging from 15 years to life sentences. No more than 30 offenders are accepted into the program each year after undergoing strict evaluation by Southeastern and DPS.
“These men will play a key role as ambassadors for good behavior and pro-social development throughout the prison system,” said Todd Ishee, Commissioner of Prisons. “They are part of our strategic plan to make our prisons safer, build positive relationships and substantially assist our reentry efforts to send offenders back to their communities as better people after they’ve served their sentences.”
Twenty-three offenders started their “freshman” year in facilities across the state with correspondence classes while more than 70 “upperclassmen” are housed at Nash CI taking the distance learning classes taught by professors off-site at the college. The “senior” class scheduled to graduate next May will be deployed in facilities across the state to help counsel other offenders.
“These men are authentically trained,’ said Dr. Julie Jailall, the director of Education Services in DPS Reentry, Programs & Services. “This is revival in our prisons. I went to Convocation (opening day of classes) last year and watched more than 60 students praying in chorus. There were men of all nationalities singing at the top of their voices about God.
“That touched me. These were normal guys who could be a regular dad, son, or brother. I spoke with some of them. They were motivated, confident, and had a positive outlook. Nothing is going to stop them from moving forward. Their life experiences moved me. I’m sure this could be a radical movement in prison that could potentially change the culture wherever they will be deployed.”
The program is funded by Game Plan for Life, the ministry arm of Joe Gibbs Racing in Huntersville. It is also one of 10 prison programs in the country to receive a two-year $50,000 grant for student success, as well as received funding support from the Sunshine Lady Foundation, which was started by billionaire entrepreneur Warren Buffet’s sister, Doris, to assist in funding priorities of college degree programs in prison.
“The relationship between Nash and Southeastern has really built up through the years,” said DPS Director of Rehabilitative Services Sarah Cobb. “If there was an obstacle, Seth would come up with possible solution. I attribute the success to the management team at Nash and choosing the right offender for the program.
“We’ll have discussions on how to roll out the field ministers. We will probably position them at intake and diagnostic centers to start to do informal work with new intakes. The field ministers will get to them before the gangs get to them. They will be our 'first responders.' A couple of wardens want them for this. Some facilities have volunteered to have field ministers. We want people to want to have this program.”
A large benefit at Nash CI is that it seems to have become a “calmer” facility. According to Cobb, offenders seek this calmness, and that word about Nash is spreading throughout the system. She said even staff that work there say it is a calmer facility.
“There is a different feel here,” said Nash Warden Drew Stanley. “We had new offenders transfer in and they’re not accustomed to having another offender speak to them. No one makes eye contact in prison. Here, guys speak to one another like they’re friends.”
Assistant Warden for Programs Talena Lee said, “Before we had to pitch the program. Now, a couple of offenders who were approved and experienced Nash before said they wanted to share their testimony. On the rec yard during a basketball game, things got heated. The field ministers prayed for peace and serenity and broke the fight up. We hear them say, ‘If you don’t apply for the program, something’s wrong with you. If want to live a different way and don’t do prison like they do now, you need to get to Nash.’”