VARNER -- A Christian studies program at one of the state's toughest prisons will soon be housed in a new 5,000-square-foot building, paid for primarily by private funds.
Corrections officials and religious leaders gathered Monday for a ceremonial groundbreaking at the high-security Varner Unit, roughly 28 miles southeast of Pine Bluff.
In addition to praying and posing for photographs, organizers buried a stone on the site inscribed with the words "Iesvs Nazarenvs Rex Ivdaeorvm" (Latin for "Jesus Christ, King of the Jews," the title given to Jesus and placed on his cross by Pontius Pilate, according to John's gospel.)
Former state Sen. Eddie Joe Williams, an early advocate for the program and one of its most prolific fundraisers, was among those wielding shovels.
Supporters have already raised roughly $450,000 to $500,000, including in-kind donations, to construct a permanent home for the Arkansas Prison Initiative.
Public funds have also been awarded to aid in the facility's construction. Colossians 418 Prison Ministries, an organization raising money to help build the education facility, was awarded $77,000 in unrestricted settlement funds last month by Arkansas Attorney Gen. Tim Griffin to help pay for the project.
Fundraising efforts continue, he said; the goal is to complete the project in time for the start of the 2024-25 academic year.
"The minute that we get through, we turn it back over ... to the state. It'll be their property as soon as we get it finished. They assume ownership of it," Williams said.
The extra space will benefit not only the students but others as well, he said.
"They can be teaching GED or they can have night classes," he said. "We want it to be a multipurpose building."
Created in 2019, the Arkansas prison seminary program enables inmates with lengthy sentences to earn a four-year bachelor of arts degree in Christian studies from the College at Mid-America, part of the Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary in Memphis.
18 GRADS IN MAY
Eighteen members of the inaugural class, including two Catholics, graduated in May, donning mortarboards and gowns as they stepped forward to receive their diplomas.
Taxpayers don't pay for the tuition; donors do. The Arkansas Baptist State Convention was an early backer.
Mark Thompson, director of the Arkansas Prison Initiative and an assistant professor of church history, missions and theology, teaches courses at the prison.
Thus far, they have been held in small classrooms above the lockup's gymnasium.
Once the new building is complete, the school will have a place of its own, with a library, four classrooms and enough space to handle 100 students.
It will take somewhere between $300,000 and $400,000 per year to provide them all with a college education, Williams said.
Those attending the groundbreaking ceremony received programs as well as pledge cards asking them to "help bring the light of Jesus into a dark place."
A $2,000 gift enables a student to attend class for a semester; $4,000 covers an entire year.
Williams, a Republican from Cabot, said he believes inmates' lives can be transformed if they're presented with the gospel and embrace it.
"It works for me, it works for you and it will work for them. They just need to be introduced," he said.
People of all faiths -- or no faith at all -- are eligible to participate.
Three Muslim inmates have been admitted, thus far, "and they made outstanding students," Williams said.
Joshua Mayfield, the state prison system's administrator of chaplaincy services, said the school has admission standards that inmates must meet.
"An applicant needs to have 10 years remaining until their parole eligibility date. They need to have a good conduct record, at least in their recent history. They also have to have a GED or a high school diploma, and then they go through some interviews and testing once the application is received," he said.
The opportunity to earn a college degree is "powerful. It changes lives here," Mayfield said.
"These are men who I have ministered to over the years, and to see growth and change and development in them has just been a thrill," he said.
Graduates can go on to be field ministers, serving as peer mentors or as chaplains' assistants.
The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, frequently referred to as "the 1994 crime bill," made all inmates ineligible to receive federal Pell grants, a prohibition that remained in place for nearly three decades.
Privately funded faith-based schools were designed to help fill that void.
Burl Cain, commissioner of the Mississippi Department of Corrections and founder of the Prison Seminaries Foundation, says educational opportunities for inmates can be life changing.
"This program is phenomenal. It's probably the best program we've ever seen in prison and I was warden 34 years," he said.
While overseeing the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, he advocated for similar faith-based educational opportunities, pressing on despite resistance.
With help from the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, his dream became a reality.
Later faced with a chaplain shortage at Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, Cain eventually hired ex-Angola graduates to fill vacancies.
Cain believes prisons can improve people, not just warehouse them.
"Corrections means correcting deviant behavior, not lock and feed, torture and torment," he said.
Monday, he grabbed one of the shovels and turned some dirt, then praised state corrections officials for moving forward.
NOT MORE VIOLENCE
"Arkansas Department of Corrections is doing their job, what they're supposed to do -- send people back to the community that can change the community for good, not have more violence," he said.
If Arkansas sticks with the program, it will benefit, he said.
"It's a slow process, but you're on the right road," he said.
Michael Hallett, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of North Florida, said faith-based prison education programs have expanded in recent years.
"They're literally all over the country," said Hallett, author of "Angola Prison Seminary: Effects of Faith-Based Ministry on Identity Transformation, Desistance, and Rehabilitation."
When properly run and monitored, these voluntary programs "provide great value, both personally to the prisoners as well as to the state prison systems in which they operate," he said.
"The American prison system is struggling mightily to retain staff and provide programming for prisoners, and when volunteers are willing to come into prisons and work with inmates for the purpose of education, that is a win for everyone, including the state but most especially the prisoners," he said.
The programs, which are predominantly sponsored by evangelicals, should be used to supplement existing prison services, not to replace them, he said.
"Too often ... the state uses them as an excuse to cut programming and cut budgets, rather than as a value-added benefit to prison programs that already exist," he said. "The net result of religious volunteers going into prison, sometimes, is that they result in fewer resources, not more, for prisoners."
More information about the Arkansas Prison Initiative is available at col418.org.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misstated the amount of money coming from private sources to fund the education building at Varner Unit.