By Brian Blackwell, Message Staff Writer
ANGOLA – New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary is running out of room at its extension center building at the Louisiana State Penitentiary and is expanding.
Since early February, construction has been ongoing for the Joan Horner Center of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.
A concrete slab was poured and two weeks later inmates began their 24-hour, six days a week work on the 11,000-sq.-ft building, made possible by a $300,000 donation.
Warden Burl Cain said when the building is dedicated with a target date of April 18, to coincide with the weekend of the Angola Rodeo, it will provide much needed breathing room for what has become a growing program and cramped workspace for the seminary students there.
“What Louisiana Baptists have done is sustain the seminary which has changed lives, so thank you Louisiana Baptists,” Cain said. “This allows us to get away from the internal part of the prison. By having our own building we have a complete separation of church and state.”
Once complete, the new building that is located not far from the current structure will house a computer lab, large classroom that will seat 160 students, two small classrooms, a religious library, administrative director’s room and a tutor room. When the seminary relocates, that will free up space in the building to use as a re-entry program.
So far, 275 inmates have graduated from the extension program since it started in 1995, two years after the prison lost PELL grants. A former educator himself, Cain was concerned the prisoners would have no educational options.
Cain inquired from New Orleans Seminary personnel about training opportunities for the inmates who were believers, though he doubted at first the school would come to Angola. However, the seminary was ecstatic about the opportunity and soon the first class was preparing for classes on the path to an associate degree.
Instead of inmates committing crimes, the inmates began witnessing to other inmates, studying for a seminary test or holding a Bible study.
And the result has been thousands of inmates who have professed Christ as their Lord and Savior and an 85 percent decrease in violence at Angola. Of the 6,300 who are inmates at Angola, nearly 50 percent are thought to be Christians.
“The seminary has had a calming effect,” Cain said. “Prisoners are immoral people who have no boundaries. Moral people know how to act. If we can get people to be moral, we can get them on the way to moral rehab.”
Beyond the walls of Angola, other prisons have adopted programs similar to the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary extension center at Angola. So far, prisons in 11 other states have adopted the program used at Angola.
“What is important is the seminary program is catching on all over the US,” Cain said. “If Louisiana Baptists hadn’t stepped forward, only God knows the number of people that would have been victims of violent crime. The only role I had in this was the role of God using the seminary here.”
Jon Robson, who serves as the director of the program at Angola, said what has happened at the prison is nothing short of an act of God and is the Great Commission at work. The new building, Robson said, will help the seminary train inmates to carry on Christ’s commandment.
“I’m very pleased and delighted for the sake of the students,” Robson said. “They will be in a building that will give them a solitary environment that will help them to actually perform their studies better.
“And I’m excited for the movement because it will be a high profile building,” he continued. “Then I’m excited for people who have given the money for it from the joy they are receiving in giving.
“And most of all I am excited for Warden Cain,” he said. “He has worked so hard through the years to make our school have a place in so many ways. This is the capstone of his journey. He’s such an innovative person and God has given him this vision.”