New Building Campaign
The Southwestern Seminary at Darrington
The Old Gym Renovation Project 2015-2017
Grove C. Norwood, Founder & CEO
The Heart of Texas Foundation (HOTF)
The Southwestern Seminary at Darrington, an official extension center of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, began in 2011 as an historic step for the state of Texas. The Heart of Texas Foundation funds this Seminary program at Darrington. Located within the maximum-security fencing of the Darrington Penitentiary in Rosharon, Texas (south of Houston), the Darrington Seminary began in the depths of a prison with a dark history of gang activity and violence. The Heart of Texas Foundation was at the epi-center of the formation and funding of this new approach to penal reform. The Southwestern Seminary at Darrington became the first 4-year, fully accredited (SACS) degree-conferring program of its kind in Texas history. The Southwestern Seminary at Darrington was modeled after the highly successful (now famous for the reduction in violence at Angola) Seminary Bible College at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, LA.
As a note, the State of Texas operates the largest prison system in the United States. We currently have 109 Texas state prisons (as compared with Louisiana, which operates 8 such prisons).
OUR DISCOVERY AT ANGOLA STATE PENITENTIARY
In 2011, Burl Cain was Senior Warden at “America’s Bloodiest Prison,” the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, LA, beginning his 17th year there. He invited The Heart of Texas Foundation to visit the prison for 4 days in 2011. It was on that trip that we Texans discovered that Angola was not the bloodiest prison in America, but the safest– perhaps in the world.
CAUSE OF THE CHANGE
What had caused this change? The Senior Warden, Burl Cain, said without hesitation: “It was the Seminary Bible College. We started the school during my very first year here. And from the very first year we began the school, our violence rate began to drop. Now, after we’ve had the school for 17 years, our violence rate is down over 73 percent. Our Bible College was the primary driver for this change.” So, with a more peaceful prison, and more trustworthy inmates, the rule book could begin to change.
WE DISCOVER TRUE “PENAL REFORM” — IN REAL TIME
Some would say that penal reform– where prisons are fundamentally and culturally changed from the inside out– has effectively eluded prison systems all over the world, because no one on the outside (legislators, researchers, criminologists, volunteers, judges, lawyers) could figure out how to actually change the inside, while working from the outside. Of course, there are individuals who have been providing help to the men who were getting out, to “reduce recidivism,” and many improvements have been made over time, but what about the men with the worst crimes, the longest sentences, who are never getting out? What influence on the prison’s culture do they have on the inside, decade after decade? Why is the heart of most prisons still dark? Because the influence of the long-term inmates is typically very dark, because so many lifers are without hope.
But at Angola we stepped into a Seminary for “lifers” in its 17th year of operation. And there we discovered for ourselves the first we had ever seen of fundamental prison reform in “real time.” A prison’s entire culture had changed, and done so from the inside out.
Step One: The men who were students and graduates from Angola’s Bible College became truly transformed men through their 4 years of study of the Bible— and they, as “lifers,” heavily influenced others in the prison. As the years passed, and more graduate “lifers” returned to the general population, more and more of the inmates were influenced for the good. The first thing that heralded true prison reform was when the men changed.
Step Two: When the prison officials saw that the men were changing, and they were changing others in the prison, the prison officials began to change the rule book. And true prison reform began to infect Angola prison, because their rules began to change. There were Inmates who could be trusted. There were inmates who became peacemakers, and counselors, and pastors, and Bible Teachers, and tier-cellblock counselors, and better fathers. Angola’s true prison reform was proven when the rule book changed. The rule book could change because there was first a change in the men. When the inmates changed the prison and its rule book changed.
Step Three: As the rule book began to change, the changed inmates were gradually allowed to do things that they had never been allowed to do. They were actually counseling men on Death Row, working bedside with dying inmates in the Hospice program, starting churches, pastoring real churches inside the prison, and organizing teams of men to mentor the many fathers in the prison to be better dads to their children. Stories of the changed fathers affected the children and families on the outside, and the words “relationship” and “reconciliation” took on new meanings. Movies were made of the change. Famous people from around the world have flown to Angola, LA to witness this amazing prison reform movement. All done without legislation. All done by bringing tools, and equipment, to the inmates: the tools with which to craft a new moral compass for their lives. And then to go teach it to others in the prison.
Step Four: we discovered that as the graduates kept coming, many were transferred as “missionaries” to other prisons in Louisiana to help bring peace to the other prisons.
When changed long-term inmates men brought trust and peace to Angola, their growing influence on the culture changed the other inmates, and that caused the prison rule book to change. When the prison rule book is able to change, everything changes.
“When they changed, we changed,” said Warden Ray Vittorio, 30-year Veteran of Angola’s Security Force. When the men inside the prison began to change, the prison’s rule book could finally– after over 100 years– began to change in a totally new way.
We returned to Texas, with a passion to bring such a program to our precious state.
THE BEGINNING OF THE TEXAS MOVEMENT
The Heart of Texas Foundation (“HOTF”) came back to Texas and immediately began work to replicate, and even improve (with Angola’s help), the Angola Seminary Model. The Southwestern Seminary at Darrington began about 10 months later, with the solid support of Governor Rick Perry, Texas State Senators John Whitmire and Dan Patrick, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (“TDCJ”), Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisiana Department of Corrections & Public Safety, the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, and most importantly, Angola’s Senior Warden, Mr. Burl Cain and his staff. All of these entities and individuals came around The Heart of Texas Foundation to help bring a new and powerful force into the Texas prison system. And that force is: the transformed long term inmate, who becomes a force for peace and reconciliation within the prison.
The “Texas Movement” is spreading to other states. In September, 2014, the state of West Virginia, Department of Corrections, in partnership with a regional Bible College, opened the doors of its Mount Olive Prison Seminary, in the Mount Olive maximum-security men’s prison in that state. The Heart of Texas Foundation has mentored and consulted with this group from the very beginning. We are now talking to other states to assist them in following the “Texas Model” which was modeled after the Angola Bible College. North Carolina is making rapid progress toward opening their prison seminary in the fall of 2017; Oregon, Wisconsin, Kansas, Arkansas and others have made contact with us and are in various stages of evaluating the potential such a prison seminary has for their states.
THE HEART OF TEXAS FOUNDATION
The Heart of Texas Foundation is a grass-roots non-profit organization with a mission statement to find new ways to bring reconciliation, forgiveness, and safety to Texas prisons, and to impact the thousands of the children of Texas inmates and the neighborhoods where they live.
THE SOUTHWESTERN SEMINARY AT DARRINGTON OPERATION
The Seminary opened its classes in 2011 by receiving applications from inmates all over the Texas prison system, and of the initial 600+ applications, the first class of 40 Freshmen were selected and bussed into Darrington from prisons all over the state– and classes began. Full time Phds from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary were hired to come into the prison and teach on a daily basis. As the semesters wore on, another class of men, and then another, were bussed in, and the population of the school swelled to over 150, and will reach nearly 200 by the end of this year, because in the Spring, another class of 40-50 men will be brought in from prisons all over Texas. At that time, the Seminary now has four full and distinct “cohorts” of students: Freshmen, Sophmores, Juniors and Seniors. It id populated with students classes at all levels, just like any 4-year degree-conferring college in the free world.
To keep the Seminary within constitutional guidelines, the Seminary does not discriminate on the basis of religious affiliation, race, or ethnic background; and all of the funding must come from private sources. The Heart of Texas Foundation, its donors and supporters, have been providing the complete funding of the school since it began, including the furnishings and equipment.
THE STRATEGY AND THE BENEFITS
While the Seminary’s 4-year Bachelor of Science Degree in Biblical Studies is the same curriculum that is taught on the free-world campuses of Southwestern Seminary, that’s where the similarity ends. We have modeled much of our strategy on the proven track record at Angola’s Seminary.
We want a “return on our investment” from the lives of our Darrington Seminary students, so we do not take short-term men who are about to get out of prison. (There are many other groups who are providing valuable assistance to that segment of the population.) We take only “lifers” and other men with extremely long sentences.
When they graduate, they do not “leave the system.” On the contrary, they will remain inside the Texas prison system for decades, some for the rest of their natural lives.
When they graduate, most of the men will leave Darrington and be transferred to other prisons in Texas, where they will powerfully influence men who are getting out of prison. They will be a force for morality, peace, and reconciliation 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Because they must live in the prison, their influence is continual, unlike everyone else’s.
With the permission of Texas Department of Criminal Justice, these graduates will be permitted to serve, counsel, facilitate, mentor, teach, preach, lead worship and influence others for the good. New policy is being written to address the Field Ministers and their labors in the Texas Prison System. These are unprecedented and exciting times.
THE NEED– Due to A Growing Student Body!
We are out of space –we’re crowded–in the “Seminary Wing” that we have been using for the last three years as the school size continued to grow. It has served us well, but with three classes now, and another to come in a few months, we are having to split the school, and hold classes elsewhere in the prison than in the Seminary Wing. And in the fall of 2014 we will bring in the next class of approximately 40 men. We must move to more suitable quarters. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice has generously offered us the “old gymnasium” on the prison grounds. With renovation, it will be perfect for the new Darrington Seminary building.
The old gymnasium gives us all these advantages:
We would move from about 6,000 square feet to more than 8,000.
The gym already is built, has plumbing, electric service, slab. It needs major remodeling both outside and within, as we convert it into a school building that will house approximately 200 students and faculty.
The gym is within the perimeter of the prison.
The gym is directly adjacent to the main prison building.
Time is of the essence. We need to keep the Seminary on schedule to enable us to systematically begin graduating a class of approximately 40 men every 12 months. We have had two graduating classes already; some 66 graduates are now serving in their new assignments, in 13 different men’s maximum-security prisons in Texas. They are serving as Field Ministers (a new role for inmate graduates of the Seminary), serving with the prison Chaplains.
THE COST: estimated at 2.0 Million, including fixtures and equipment.
After interviewing firms that specialize in the design-build approach, the HOTF Board of Directors selected the Houston firm of PKP Construction to do the renovation of the old gymnasium.
The experience that PKP Construction nearly 40 years, including being integral to the construction of nearly 100 prisons in Texas and other states, and they are familiar with the challenges inherent in building inside a maximum-security prison.
We feel fortunate that a firm with this experience is based in Houston and has shown interest in the project. Their initial budget for the renovation (not including Fixtures and Equipment) is available upon request. Initial cost estimate: 2.0 million including fixtures and equipment.
Some of the anticipated payoff of the successful implementation and long-term operation of the Southwestern Seminary at Darrington and the associated “Field Ministry Inmates” that will be spawned into the other Texas prisons can be identified as follows:
positive impact on prison costs as violence is reduced
positive change in prison culture in Texas
less violence means more peace and a healthier place to live and work
reduced staff turnover due to fear of violence
less need of psychotropic drugs for inmate depression and loss of hope
positive reconciliation with families and children of inmates
reduction in gang violence and prevalence
positive impact on those who are getting out
positive impact on lowering the Texas TDCJ recidivism rate due to the influence of the Field Ministers (Seminary Graduates) on the general populations in Texas prisons
We are grateful that donors stepped up to help us in this historic effort. Led by our Capital Campaign Chairman, Mr. Pat King, who helped us work with The George Foundation and The Fred and Mabel Parks Foundation, along with private donors and Rotary Clubs, we have met our goal and are beginning construction in summer of 2016.