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story.lead_photo.caption Arkansas Department of Corrections Varner Unit Prison in Gould. - Photo by Benjamin Krain

VARNER -- Twenty-five college freshmen -- the entirety of this Class of 2023 -- sat patiently in neat rows of chairs last Wednesday and began their higher learning careers like many others do: listening to a string of speakers wishing them well; touring the campus; and chatting with fellow classmates over a spread of free food.

Once graduated, however, most of these students will spend the rest of their lives hemmed in by a razor-wire fence.

The four-year college seminary program that launched last week at the Varner Unit, a maximum-security prison in Lincoln County, is affiliated with the Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary in Cordova, Tenn. It's the latest outpost in a growing number of seminaries that aim to spread their graduates into America's violence-plagued prisons.

More than half of the foundational class at the Varner Unit's seminary are inmates serving life sentences without the possibility of parole, according to the Rev. William "Dubs" Byers, a member of the Arkansas Board of Corrections. Byers helped launch the school.

Most of the rest in the class have so many years left to serve that it's unlikely they will ever spend much time outside prison, Byers said.

At least two members of the class -- prisoners Robert Robbins and Bobby Friend -- were once housed on Varner's Death Row, before their death sentences were reduced to life.

"It's one of those things I left undone out there," explained Robbins, 40, who has spent more than two decades at the Varner Unit for killing his girlfriend, Bethany White, while he was enrolled at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville.

"Even if you have a lot of time in here and it seems like the free world has given up on you, you shouldn't give up on yourself," Robbins told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette after Wednesday's ceremony.

Varner's seminary -- officially the Arkansas Prison Initiative -- is based on a model first established in 1995 by the longtime warden at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, Burl Cain. Angola, reportedly the nation's largest maximum-security prison, was also considered one of the most violent, according to Cain, who attended the opening ceremony of Varner's seminary.

Now retired, Cain leads the Global Prison Seminaries Foundation, which has worked to set up similar programs in 15 states.

Rather than using the seminary to educate prisoners for a possible career after release, Cain said the goal of his initiative is to spread "morality" through prisons by training prisoners to minister to others in their cells and barracks.

"We want him to have a long sentence," Cain told the Democrat-Gazette, explaining that such graduates will get more "bang for your buck" from the sponsors who are funding the program.

According to Dr. Michael Spradlin, the president of Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary, the program at the Varner Unit is being supported by an anonymous $136,000 donation through the Arkansas Baptist Foundation. No state funds will support the seminary program, officials said.

Spradlin said graduates will be conferred with a bachelor of arts degree in Christian studies from Mid-America. The campus at the prison will have one full-time faculty member, as well as several adjunct instructors from the area. The rest of the classes will be conducted by streaming video.

After graduation, the plan is to send the seminary-trained prisoners to other units across the state.

The effectiveness of Cain's prison seminary programs in reducing prison violence has been the subject of ongoing research by a team at Baylor University's Institute for Religious Studies, with one study reporting that a Bible college at a Texas prison reduced disciplinary violations by as much as one per student.

The same team of researchers, however, has also questioned whether prison officials have become reliant on religious programs run by charitable groups, in the place of funding for secular programs.

"Insofar as prison leaders often find themselves under-staffed, it is not uncommon for wardens and state legislators to advocate for broader use of religious volunteers in prisons," the Baylor team wrote in an article this year in Prison Journal. The effectiveness of faith-based programs over secular ones, the article said, "is not definitive."

Once it reaches its capacity of about 100 students, the Varner seminary program will be the largest four-year college program operating within the Arkansas Department of Correction, according to spokeswoman Dina Tyler.

The other college programs for the roughly 15,000 inmates held at Arkansas prisons mostly focus on two-year degrees through community colleges.

The largest is a federal pilot program called Second Chance Pell, which launched in 2015 and partnered with North Little Rock's Shorter College and Arkansas State University at Newport to enroll inmates and parolees in courses. It now averages about 210 state inmates at a time, Tyler said.

Central Baptist College in Conway also has a program for state prisoners to earn both baccalaureate and associate's degrees, Tyler said, although enrollment figures in that program were not immediately available. Two-year programs are also offered through Harding College and Ashland University in Ohio, she said.

Outside of the pilot program, however, prisoners have been ineligible for federal Pell Grants since 1994. Since that ban was enacted, Tyler said, enrollment in college courses has largely dried up inside state prisons.

"We can't pay for the tuition, the inmates can't pay the tuition and the school can't absorb the tuition," Tyler said.

Prisoners who are able to pay their own way or obtain other scholarships can still take correspondence programs, Tyler added, though many schools have moved to online courses that are unavailable to inmates with restricted Web access. The Correction Department does not keep count of how many inmates are enrolled in such courses.

At the Arkansas Prison Initiative, students appeared to be those who have already involved themselves as mentors and teachers in the prison, based on interviews with about a third of the class.

Paul Norris, a 30-year-old with a life sentence for murder, said he's been involved with Varner Unit's anti-gang program for the past seven years.

Robert Munnerlyn, 59, has tutored at the prison's computer lab.

Friend, 46, the former Death Row inmate, said he has spent many years involved in aiding the chaplain ministry.

Robert Williford Jr., a 51-year-old convicted murderer serving a life sentence plus 196 years, said he wanted a seminary education, "knowing first-hand how violent it can be" in prison.

"This right here gives us the tools to reach out," he said.

Spradlin, of the Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary, said graduates who are someday released from prison will have access to the same resources as graduates from the college's campus in Tennessee. While the school does not pair its graduates with a church, he said, former students can use connections at the school to find ministerial work.

One of the program's new students, 49-year-old Joel Cheirs, said he hopes to find work someday as a pastor-counselor. He is eligible for parole in June 2036; Cheirs is serving a sentence for battery, burglary and kidnapping.

"Wherever the cause is," Cheirs said, when asked if he had any churches or cities in mind. "Wherever it is needed."

NW News on 09/03/2019

Print Headline: Seminary program starts at state prison

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