The Bible’s book of Acts ends with chapter 28. But that didn’t stop Dr. David Osterlund from starting a newsletter called Acts 29—“because we’re writing a new chapter here in South Carolina,” he explains with enthusiasm.
In December 2008, for example, 15 newly commissioned missionaries headed out to spread the hope and power of Jesus Christ within a culture most would find foreign and fearsome: the prison culture.The Bible’s book of Acts ends with chapter 28. But that didn’t stop Dr. David Osterlund from starting a newsletter called Acts 29—“because we’re writing a new chapter here in South Carolina,” he explains with enthusiasm.
But many within that culture are ripe for responding to the message carried by the men who have trained and studied for two years to take this missionary journey. As one relates:
“I have been blessed by the honor of leading several men in a prayer for salvation, and praise God for using me during the decisive moment of their lives. I have had gang members break down in tears and pour out their pains and sorrows to me. In the midst of such a dark environment I have seen Jesus deliver a ray of light and hope in the hearts and minds of lost men.”
And did we mention that all of these highly trained missionaries are prisoners themselves?
Sending School to the Students
They are also graduates of Columbia International University’s unique satellite campus nestled within the not-so-scenic cinderblock walls of Kirkland Correctional Institution, a level 3 (maximum security) prison that confines some of the most dangerous criminals in South Carolina. It’s also the state prison system’s Reception and Evaluation (R&E) center—the first stop for all newly incarcerated offenders to be assessed and classified before they’re sent off to their assigned facility. It’s tightly controlled. No doubt that’s one reason the students at this branch hunker down in their studies, facing few distractions. “I would say that their attention and urge to study are very high,” says Osterlund, director of CIU’s Prison Initiative. Overall, he adds, their test scores have been excellent.
Osterlund and undergraduate faculty and administration developed the Prison Initiative—a two-year associate of arts program—after Jon Ozmint, director of the South Carolina Department of Corrections, visited Lousiana’s infamous Angola prison in 2004. The largest maximum-security prison in the U.S., Angola also had the reputation of being the bloodiest, as prisoners with lengthy sentences (88 years is the average) felt they had little to lose by unleashing violence.
But that was before Burl Cain took over as warden in 1995. A Christian, Cain believed that without “moral rehabilitation,” any efforts to expand prisoners’ education or teach them vocational skills “would only be creating smarter criminals.” Cain also believed that the one true source of moral rehabilitation was Jesus Christ.
So among his many reforms, Cain invited New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary to launch a four-year Bible college inside Angola. About 150 have graduated with B.A. degrees so far. Inmate graduates who sense a call to ministry transfer “two by two” to other prisons across Louisiana as missionaries of the Gospel.
The impact of Cain’s vision has earned national media attention. Violence at Angola has plummeted; riots have been replaced by prayer rallies. Long-term prisoners with nothing to lose have now gained a sense of purpose and meaning, despite the fact that many of them will still die in prison—of old age.
Creating Prison Peacemakers
Impressed with the transformation of Angola, Ozmint returned with a vision to do something similar in South Carolina—to equip inmates and send them out as purveyors of peace. He turned to Columbia International University.
Osterlund, at the time academic dean, faced the usual red tape but few red flags from the faculty members he sought to recruit. The prospect of a criminal student body sparked no “fear factor,” he says. “The only hesitation was wondering if they could fit it into their schedule.” Kirkland Correctional Institution was chosen because of its close proximity to the university and its available space for classrooms. The CIU faculty put together a 70-credit curriculum, and Osterlund started to develop an academic library for the prison, raised funds, and put up recruitment posters in prisons across the state. Aspiring students had to submit applications, including a 500-word essay that revealed something about their walk of faith as well as their writing skills.
Prison officials “weeded out” certain applicants “before we even saw their names,” explains Osterlund—those, for example, who would be a security risk or might have mental-health problems. “I make a point of not knowing what they are in for,” says Osterlund, though he’s aware that some students have multiple life sentences that ensure they will never step on free soil again. “Our dean quietly completed the due diligence process on all applications,” he says.
The prisoner applicants encountered two requirements not faced by most college hopefuls: violence-free for a minimum of six months, and at least seven years left on their prison sentences. “If we invested two years into their lives,” explains Osterlund, “we wanted them to invest at least five years in ministry”—as in-prison missionaries and peacemakers. More than 60 applied; 32 made it to the interview stage; 15 were accepted for the first “cohort” that began classes in January 2007.
The application process is serious business, and even failures become momentum for men determined to take advantage of an opportunity for life transformation. One prisoner came before the interview panel with “Jesus is Lord” written on his white state-issued prison pants. “Is this a way to be a witness, or are you defacing property?” a panel member asked. That infraction knocked the inmate out of the running at the time. “But he wrote a letter of apology and may make it the next time,” Osterlund assured.
Funding for the Prison Initiative comes from Columbia International University, which seeks donations to cover the cost of prisoners’ textbooks, books and other resources for the in-prison library, classroom computers, and other materials.
The 70-credit program (which actually exceeds the credit requirements for the non-prisoner associate of arts students) includes classes in Bible and theology, history, math, psychology, research, public speaking, and ministry skills.
In addition, Osterlund insists that all of the inmate students take basic English, “assuming that if you haven’t been in school for, in some cases, 20 years, you might need that.” CIU provides mentors and tutors to help students brush up on long-rusted study habits and learn the necessary technological skills. “Many of them never had computer experience, but they’re all pecking away now!” Osterlund says proudly.
Putting Teaching into Practice
CIU also requires a ministry practicum, which came about partly by design, partly by circumstance. In September 2007—nine months after the program debuted—a prison escape led officials to tighten restrictions on Kirkland’s “R&E” inmates, those still in the process of being monitored and assessed for risk level. One consequence, says Osterlund, is that they were restricted from chapel services—“and I thought, What a terrible thing.”
The students “are doing evangelism and discipleship,” says Osterlund. “It’s an outstanding way of preparing them for when they are placed at another prison when they leave the program.”Prison staff apparently thought so, too, and the CIU program team was asked to devise a way that the students could go to the men on lockdown to provide the spiritual opportunities withheld from them through chapel. Ever since then, Kirkland’s CIU students have gone cell-to-cell three evenings a week to initiate what Osterlund simply calls “conversations.” These visits might include sharing the Gospel, studying the Bible, praying with the inmates, inviting them to talk over personal struggles, and discussing ways to apply God’s truth to their daily choices and actions. He estimates that about 15,000 such conversations took place in the last year—often through multiple visits to interested prisoners. About 450 of the men visited by the students in 2009 indicated a first-time decision to trust Christ as their Savior.
In December 2008 the first cohort of students, garbed in caps and gowns and backed by the regal strains of “Pomp and Circumstance,” stepped smartly to the front of Kirkland’s visitors’ room to receive their diplomas as proud family members looked on. Soon after, most were transferred to other medium- and maximum-security prisons to continue their mission of evangelism, discipleship, and Christian service, as other prisoners transferred in to take their place at the classroom desks.
Working under the guidance of the prison chaplains, the graduates may teach Bible studies and structured classes, help lead worship services, visit prisoners dorm-to-dorm or cell-to-cell, provide encouragement, or give comfort and assistance to ailing prisoners in the infirmary or hospice unit. None of the CIU grads get any special privileges in their assigned prison.
Ministering Two by Two
Gerry Potoka provides spiritual leadership to the men of Kershaw Correctional Institution, about 55 miles northeast of Columbia. Before taking on his post as prison chaplain, he served as a prison-ministry volunteer while also pastoring a church across the state line in Charlotte, North Carolina. He himself is a graduate of Columbia International University, “and I have confidence in what they do,” he says. So a year ago he readily welcomed as two of his chapel assistants Patrick* and Julius, graduates of CIU’s Prison Initiative.
“It’s helpful to have them because they’re living here,” says Potoka. “I go home every night. These guys don’t.” Within a full-time prison environment, Patrick’s and Julius’s “Christian maturity is being tested, and they have proven themselves well.” There is a constant waiting list of prisoners interested in getting into the discipleship program so they can “get their lives back on track.” About 50 men, for example, currently participate in the preaching and teaching class that Julius leads.They seem a good match. Patrick, “the more quiet one,” tends to station himself in the chapel library, helping prisoners find the materials they need to develop their religious knowledge and faith; offering wise counsel to those struggling with uncertainties. Julius—“much more outgoing,” says Potoka—spends more time with the prisoners out in the yard or in their dorms. Both help the chaplain in teaching various levels of discipleship classes and training mentors.
“Most people call this facility KCI,” adds Potoka—for Kershaw Correctional Institution. “But we like to call it KBI—Kershaw Bible Institution.” And the chaplain has already put in his “order” for two more graduates of the Prison Initiative. Cohort 2 will earn their degrees in summer 2010.
Every semester, Osterlund and other CIU staff visit the graduates now serving in six South Carolina prisons, as well as with the chaplains they report to and, if possible, the prison leadership. They talk about progress toward goals and what might be done differently. These meetings provide prime material for Osterlund’s Acts 29 newsletter—“to show what Patrick is doing at Kershaw, what James is doing at Lee, and what DeShawn is doing at Perry—he says, ticking off just a few of the names. “So the guys and chaplains and wardens can read all about it, can get ideas and be motivated.”
No one is more motivated than Osterlund himself. Now 73, with five decades in the educational field, he says the opportunity to train and send out prison evangelists and disciple-makers “has given me a new lease on life. It’s one of the things I have truly become passionate about.”
Someone once told him it was a “dumb idea” to invest so much teaching in men who may never get out of prison. But both Osterlund and academic dean, Dr. Pat Blewett, adamantly claim that the transformation of long-term prisoners “is the only thing that’s going to change the prison system itself.” What’s more, Osterlund points out, the prisoners who may never get out “are impacting the lives of fellows who will get out, who will be our neighbors someday. And if we can save them from the recidivism that is rampant around here and help make them into honest and good citizens, that’s a plus for the community as well as the fellows inside the walls.”
He’s hoping to see the program expand, including a version for women inmates.
Rescuing Those in Bondage
Going to college—let alone a Bible college—is an opportunity many criminals never even imagined, or cared about, during their days “on the streets.” But incarceration often has a way of reshaping priorities and heightening appreciation for the second chances that don’t always come readily to those locked away from society’s sight and attention.
As one prisoner wrote:
“The gift of God has been given to me
This inmate once bound in sin
I found my freedom through Jesus Christ
Now I’m free in this prison I’m in
Yes, I’m free in this prison I’m in.”
And now, as a student in CIU’s Prison Initiative, he’s learning to share this freedom and hope with others still bound.
* By request, all prisoners’ names have been changed to protect their privacy.