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Take it on faith

Hope for the (nearly) hopeless September 8, 2019 at 1:50 a.m.

"For the Lord heareth the poor, and despiseth not his prisoners."

--Psalms 69:33

It can be a tightrope, writing about prison ministries. Remember them that are in bonds, as if you were bound with them. That's what a certain Book says. Then again, there are many fine families in the outside world whose lives have been upturned through no fault of their own. We understand if they might not want to hear about redemption and forgiveness. It's enough to send a body to the Psalms, where the writers knew how to lament. (One must remember, however, that for all the troubles the psalmist has seen, he often ends with confidence in being delivered.)

Over the holiday weekend, John Moritz on the news side reported about a new prison ministry in Arkansas, focusing on the least among us. Well, maybe the least among those on the inside. For these are the kinds of prisoners who aren't among us. Many are in for life. And those who eventually get out, they won't be young.

Officially it's called the Arkansas Prison Initiative, but could be known as Prison College for the Worst Offenders. The initiative launched last week at the Varner Unit in Lincoln County and is affiliated with the Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary in Tennessee.

You might remember the name Burl Cain. In the world of prisons and corrections, he's renowned. For years, he ran the infamous Angola Prison in Louisiana, near the Mississippi state line north of Baton Rouge. Back in the 1990s, Warden Cain came up with a model program for long-term prisoners. And others have picked it up. Including Arkansas.

As our reporter put it, more than half of those entering this year's class at Varner are inmates serving life sentences without the possibility of parole. And those who aren't serving life will likely be there into old age. That's the kind of prisoner involved in this program. Convicted murderers and the like. A couple of those in the classes used to be on death row until those sentences were changed, one way or the other, one court or another, last year.

John Moritz interviewed a couple of the inmates and told their bloody stories. This is where the tightrope comes in. It's easy for those of us on the outside to say: Put them on an island and give them some seeds. That is, dispose of them. Remind us no more. They can do society no good. So why should society do them any?

Answer: Because they are human. And so are we.

Rather than prepare these inmates for release to one day better the outside world, or at least adapt to it, this program seeks something that might be more difficult: educating people who might not ever help the outside world again. Instead, the focus seems to be to train prisoners to minister to other prisoners.

No state funds are used in this seminary program, the courts being the courts. The initiative is funded by an anonymous donation guided by the Arkansas Baptist Foundation, so it will probably pass any legal muster. The courts might prove to be understanding. For who better than judges to appreciate prisons that do more than just hold inmates in a tank?

Once finished, those taking the four-year course will have a B.A. in Christian Studies. (As if those studies could ever end with a worldly degree.) The plan is to send those prisoners to other units across the state after graduation. Who says only viruses and rumors spread quickly in prison? Why not The Word? Paul and Silas sang in the prison. There is no rule that says they have to be the only ones.

Reducing recidivism really isn't the point here, since most these folks are in for life or thereabouts. Instead, this program appears to be more about transforming lives. And that certainly can be done in prison.

The unknown author of Hebrews put it plain: Remember those who are in bonds. Just as if you were in bonds with them. And remember those who suffer, as if you were suffering with them. (Hebrews 13:3)

So we remember. And construct programs like the Arkansas Prison Initiative. Not because there's something in it for us, but because the prisoners have their souls to think about. So do we.

Editorial on 09/08/2019

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