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The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.
                                     John Milton

Can Razor Wire and Faith co-exist?

Is Jailhouse Religion for real, and can the hearts of the incarcerated actually change?

Today, I went to prison and got to witness one answer to that question.  The imposing confinement of razor wire fencing and the decisive clang of iron gates never let me forget for a moment where I was.  This was an all-male, maximum security penitentiary.  The Darrington Unit in Rosharon, Texas.

After foraging through my closet at home for the requisite anti-feminine attire, and after reassuring myself (over and over) that I would not be thought of by the prisoners as a woman (preferably not thought of at all), I drove to Rosharon, relinquished my driver’s license to the prison guards, and surrendered myself to a routine pat-down.

The male inmates at Darrington are housed there because they committed offenses that warranted long sentences in a maximum security prison.  They are criminals.  They are felons.  I don’t even want to know or consider the details of the crimes they afflicted on innocents.

As it should be, prison is a hard place.  Between the monotony of routine and the chronic threat of brutality integral to life behind its walls, inmates exist in survival mode.  And, I will say again, in monotony.  There is a sameness to their days.  A plodding, if you will.

But, aside from Satan’s assertion in Paradise Lost that his was a mind not to be changed by Place or Time,” I’ve come to believe that the stories we humans live through are designed to change us.

So today, thirty-nine tattooed and hardened men—black, white, and Hispanic—sat at the front of the prison chapel and became the first of their Texas inmates to enter an historic and unprecedented (yes, I know those words are redundant, but I want to make sure I get this point across) program in the Texas penal system.  Beginning this month, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, a fully accredited and world-renowned seminary, will be offering a Bachelor of Science degree in Biblical Studies in the Darrington Maximum Security Penitentiary.

Okay, right about now, I can hear you saying, “Run that one by me again!

So, here’s the deal:  This program—a program of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, the Texas Legislature, and The Heart of Texas Foundation—is modeled after the seminary program at Angola Penitentiary in Louisiana.  I’m talkin’ Angola—the bloodiest prison in America!  After seventeen years in operation, the Angola seminary proves that, without change in the moral fabric of a person, no true rehabilitation occurs.

And what does moral rehabilitation of incarcerated men and women actually accomplish and why, may I ask, should I care?  Aside from reducing violence within the walls, it has been shown to diminish violence from those released into the free world.  It has cut back recidivism rates.  On top of that, this “heart change” has been found to effectively reduce the 75% chance that a child of an inmate will follow the parent into prison.

Okay, now this is a statistic we need to fully wrap our minds around: 75% of children of prisoners are going to end up in prison, themselves!  Now, friends, we are paying for that…and in more ways than just monetary.

(If you’re interested in more about Angola’s seminary program, check out the documentary at the following web address: http://www.onmission.com/A-New-Hope/)

I have to tell you.  I am a skeptic.  I’m a Doubting Thomas.  I went to college in Missouri—the Show-Me state.   So, I questioned the validity and effectiveness of this whole Bible college thing.  But, I’ve been to Angola, and I’ve seen a freedom of spirit that has emerged from a cocoon of violence and hatred.  I’ve seen what God can do in the lives of men who had no room for a god, at all.  I’ve been to Darrington and its new seminary campus, and I see something amazing that is already happening.  I listened today to the Darrington Gospel Choir.  These are prisoners.  These are those felons I referred to earlier.  And, I’m telling you, I could listen to their gut-wrenching melodic songs of yearning all day.  Their passion, their fervor reverberated deep inside them and me.

Victor Frankl wrote that, “Between stimulus and response, man has the freedom to choose.”  I was thinking about Victor Frankl while I was at Darrington.  If you have read his books, you know that he was a neurologist and psychologist who survived the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz.  He helped other prisoners there to survive by teaching them that suffering had meaning.  He would whisper in those other prisoners’ ears words of Life’s Meaning.  Of Purpose.  Of Hope.

These inmates at Darrington, while locked behind steel bars, still have the freedom to choose whether to make a Heaven of Hell or a Hell of Heaven.  And their minds (and hearts) can most definitely be changed by Place or Time.

What Victor Frankl did for countless numbers of prisoners in the Nazi death camps is amazing.  But ponder for just a moment—how much more powerful is that whisper of meaning and purpose and hope in a prisoner’s ear when it comes, not from a man, but from the Holy Spirit?

I have seen it.  I know it to be true.  I have been blessed to be a Witness.

There is a Holy Spirit, and that spirit is moving in prisoner’s lives, prompting wounded hearts to heal.