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Texas prison seminary program faces growing pains

Officials working to place convict ministers in prisons when first graduates come out in 2015

By Mike Ward
Austin American-Statesman

ROSHARON, Texas — Tattooed across Brandon Brewer’s fingers are his cry for help, from a violent past when he shot his mother to death in 2004 in Kingsland: L-O-S-T H-O-P-E.

“I felt hatred toward God because I was in prison,” said Brewer, now 25, explaining why he got the tattoos after he was locked away for 60 years, starting at age 16.

On Monday, wearing a cross with his prison whites, Brewer was enthusiastically praising that same God in song at a convocation ceremony at the maximum-security Darrington Unit near Houston, where the boyish-faced felon is studying to become a minister.

When the first students graduate with bachelor’s degrees in spring 2015 from the only in-prison seminary in Texas, they will fan out to other Texas prisons to minister to and convert other felons to God. The program is privately funded and non-denominational.

But as graduation day nears, prison officials are just beginning to grapple with how to organize the special ministries. In a prison world where convicts are never trusted with any responsibility, wardens will be asked to let the newly minted ministers do the Lord’s work in some of the state’s toughest cell blocks.

To do so, they must have some freedom of movement — something generally forbidden to convicts in a world where control and security are everything. Their special status as ministers also could be problematic if it is used to manipulate guards or inmates for special privileges, as can happen in prison.

In addition, officials must contend with a lack of space to accommodate the program’s success. Because classroom space is now full, they are considering converting part of a gym at Darrington into additional classrooms — and perhaps even using portable military buildings from Afghanistan — to admit even more convicts into the seminary.

“They’re going to be the agents of changing a criminal culture, changing the environment, changing lives,” said state Sen. John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat, who along with Houston Republican state Sen. Dan Patrick, persuaded prison officials to open the seminary at Darrington, one of the state’s oldest prisons and one of its most troubled.

“The next step is a big one — putting these prison ministers out on units to do good. That may be the biggest hurdle. But we’ve seen miracles so far in this program, and I expect we’ll see more,” Whitmire said.

Brad Livingston, executive director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and a supporter of the program, echoed the sentiment: “The next step will be a logistical challenge, yes, but we will be able to make it work. The program has had a tremendous positive impact here already.”

Instead of high rates of assaults and contraband smuggling, Darrington now has many fewer problems, officials said. Guards who were initially skeptical, even derisive, about its chances of success are now singing the program’s praises. Some use the word “miracle” to describe it.

In an old-style prison like Darrington, where taunting curses and the slamming of steel-barred doors are the norm in cell blocks, the seminary classrooms are a quiet, almost contemplative place where convicts sit at tables studying Bibles, praying and learning how to witness for a God that most of them once never knew.

To be eligible for the program, each must have a long sentence, and they must be years from becoming eligible for parole once they complete the program.

For the 40 slots in the new class that was formally brought into the program on Monday, more than 600 inmates applied. The average age: about 35. The average sentence: 50 years. The convicts’ grades? Maybe better than “free world” students, because they are more focused on their work, seminary officials hint with a smile.

Most of the 160 convicts in the program are Christians, including five Roman Catholics. Five are Muslims.

“God likes to work in ways that we sometimes don’t expect, and this program is an example of that,” said Paige Patterson, a nationally recognized pastor who is president of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, which runs the prison seminary.

“The Lord is going to use these students to carry his message and change the prison system,” Patterson said.

When he finishes, Brewer will be the youngest graduate. The oldest is Larry Leroy Youngblood, 66, a self-professed former drug addict and career criminal who is serving 60 years for aggravated robbery with a deadly weapon in Dallas — “a simple robbery gone bad,” as he explains it.

“I wasn’t a nice fellow for most of my life, let’s put it that way,” he said. “My first crime was at 9, when I stole 27 bicycles. I got sent to juvenile homes … and have been (in Texas prisons) five times. I don’t expect I’ll ever get out. My goal is to graduate and to minister to ad seg” — administrative segregation, where the most violent convicts and gang members are housed.

He will be eligible for parole when he is 78, for release when he is 108.

Youngblood, who started going by his middle name instead of his first name after becoming a Christian more than 13 years ago at an East Texas prison, had a background in prison ministries at another lockup. Because of that, officials said he was one of the first convicts admitted into the prison seminary that opened two years ago.

For Brewer, who explains his crime only as “shooting a 46-year-old woman” — a Google search later revealed it was his mother — parole eligibility won’t come for an additional 21 years, when he is in his late 40s. “If God is ready then, I’ll be ready,” he said.

As top prison officials work to figure out the logistics of the convict missionary work, correctional officers and victims’ groups caution that there must be some measure of whether the white-uniformed ministers are truly changed. Can they be part of a credible rehabilitation process for other convicts, rather than part of the game-playing that temporary religious conversions have been associated with behind bars?

Prison officials said they are considering whether to assign the ministers in pairs to cell blocks or in groups assigned to a prison. Brandon Warren, an administrative associate who oversees the seminary inside the Darrington prison, said the ministers will be sent to lockups where wardens want them.

“The culture change where current inmates can be part of (rehabilitation and treatment) programming, a part of the solution, will probably be one of the biggest hurdles we’ll have to get over,” Whitmire said. “That’s not how things have worked in Texas in the past.

“But this is not the past anymore.”