This article was written by Bob Fielding, Consultant for Chaplaincy & National/International Missions Consultant for the ABSC, and Sarah Vaughn, staff writer for the ABN.
PARON, Ark. – The ABSC Missions Team recently hosted Arkansas Department of Corrections chaplains at Camp Paron for a three-day retreat on March 15 – 17. This was no ordinary retreat! Among several topics discussed was preparation for receiving inmate field ministers in 2023.
The Arkansas Baptist State Convention partnered with the Arkansas Department of Corrections Division of Correction and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary to become the 16th state in the nation to start a “prison seminary” – a Christian Ministries bachelor’s degree program that produces inmate graduates trained to assist in the moral rehabilitation of their fellow inmates. Other states with inmate field ministers who are sent to serve in prison units see a tangible reduction in self-harm and inmate violence against officers and fellow inmates.
Inmate field ministers serve others by conducting Bible studies, personal conversations, mentoring, cell visitation, leading by example and more. They have no authority over their fellow inmates but instead influence others by the way they conduct their lives and how they serve. It is believed that in the long run, field ministers will help impact the recidivism rates in their states as well, as those they minister to are released into society.
The first cohort of Arkansas prison seminary students, now juniors in their bachelor’s degree training at the Varner Unit, will graduate in the Spring of 2023. The current freshman class will graduate in 2025. Many of the graduates will qualify to move on to field ministry – a peer-to-peer ministry to fellow inmates. Chaplain Joshua Mayfield, administrator of religious services, told his chaplain team on Tuesday, “We are going to be entrusted with men who have been taught at a high level, who have succeeded academically, and who have demonstrated that they are prepared to do field ministry in the units. I want us to embrace our role as their administrators, as their overseers, and be ready.”
The Arkansas prison chaplains also had the rare opportunity to meet former field ministers. Robby Jones and Reginald Watt are full-time prison chaplains in the Mississippi Department of Corrections. They are former field ministers where prison seminaries first started: the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. As full-time chaplains who served as inmate field ministers, they bring a unique perspective and can speak to the questions and concerns of Arkansas chaplains.
Their stories are ones that bring hope and inspiration to both those who are investing time and money into prison seminaries, and the inmates that participate. The men shared how they arrived at Angola, how they ended up participating in Angola’s seminary, and how they were able to get out and continue ministry as chaplains.
Reginald, or Watts, as he liked to go by, shared what he described as only a miracle from God himself. In short, Watts had been sentenced to life in prison with no hope of clemency or parole. The judge even told him he would die in prison. He tried to appeal, but it failed. He attributed his miraculous 25 years later release to “the Bible college” and God.
Both men shared several stories of leading people to Christ. Robert Jones taught small engine mechanics and had countless gospel conversations with inmates in that mentoring setting.
Beyond the chaplains meeting, the former Angola inmates turned chaplains were then allowed to go to the Varner Unit, home of the Arkansas prison seminary, to speak to the current classes and field questions. Dr. Mark Thompson, director of Mid-America’s Arkansas prison initiative, said of the visit, “It was a great blessing to me and to our students. Robert and Reginald brought visible hope and encouragement to our men. They got to see that God has a purpose and a plan for them and this program. God is raising them up to be mighty men for the kingdom of God in the ADC and beyond.”