Published January 14, 2015
Jerome Derricks says he heard God's call early. He only wishes he'd answered sooner. By the time he did, he was serving a life sentence for murder in the Louisiana State Penitentiary, commonly known as Angola.
"I ran from my calling all my life," said Derricks, 44. "But I like to put it like this: God finds people wherever they go."
At Angola, God has been finding men regularly. So far about 150 of them have earned Bachelor of Arts degrees from the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, and another 100 are on track to graduate. Derricks was a member of the first group of graduates, getting his degree in 2005.
"It was an idea that just grew and has kept on growing," said Norris C. Grubbs, the seminary professor that oversees the Angola program. "It's not easy. They're taking the same program our students at the seminary take: 126 hours and the requirements for passing are the same."
Since starting the program at Angola, the Baptist seminary has begun similar ones in the Mississippi and Georgia prisons. Angola and seminary officials believe they are the only full-time, college-accredited programs for ministers in the nation's prisons.
Such programs are not tracked overall in state prisons. Federal prisons have nothing comparable, a spokeswoman said.
There are about 5,200 men at Angola, an 18,000-acre former plantation. About 90 percent of them will die there because of the length of their sentences, and many will be buried in the bleak Point Lookout Cemetery on the grounds. It's the price Louisiana extracts for its most violent crimes, like murder, rape, kidnapping and armed robberies.
For years Angola was the bloodiest prison in the country. In 1951, to protest the brutal conditions, 31 prisoners sliced their Achilles tendons so they couldn't be sent to work.
In 1995 — the year Burl Cain became the warden — there were 799 reported inmate attacks, and another 192 attacks on guards.
"It was bad," Cain said. "We had murders, we had attacks, we had suicides, and it was all because of a lack of hope."
The dire fate of some of the prison's inmates is highlighted by Gerald Bordelon, who was scheduled to be executed Thursday for killing his 12-year-old stepdaughter. The execution would be Louisiana's first since 2002.
Looking for ways to restore hope for men who had little to look forward to, Cain instituted a number of programs and clubs — there are art clubs, a Dale Carnegie self-improvement program, crafts clubs — aimed at helping the prisoners develop skills and interests.
But Cain, a man of strong religious beliefs, believed faith-based programs and what he calls moral rehabilitation were the best answer. When a federal Pell Grant that funded a previous general education program ended, the prison reached out to the Baptist seminary.
At Angola, everyone has a job. For some it's working in the fields or in the prison hospice program. For those enrolled in the seminary, it's going to school.
Every weekday, the students crowd into classrooms to study toward a college degree that is accredited the same as any four-year university.
"It is not easy," said Charles Varnado, 65, who has been at Angola for 37 years for murder. "You have math, and languages and science and you have to work and learn them or else."
Prisoners for the course are selected on a number of criteria, prison officials said. Religious affiliation is not one of them, Cain said. He points out that a Muslim prisoner completed the course and received his degree.
The American Civil Liberties Union has gone to court several times over religious matters at Angola, but the seminary program is not one of them.
"We are certainly not opposed to the offering of educational opportunities,"' said Marjorie Esman, executive director of the ACLU of Louisiana. "The problem is if it is limited to a specific group."
Graduates of the seminary now officiate at the prison's 18 inmate churches and also do one-on-one ministry and grief counseling.
The prison has 23 graduates of the seminary who act as missionaries in eight satellite prisons in Louisiana.
Derricks' church is at the prison reception center, where new prisoners are first held, and he ministers to the 98 men on death row.
"Not every preacher that comes here knows how to reach men here," Derricks said, referring to a minister who told death row inmates that they "should get right with God before they got the bug juice squirted in their veins."
"When I talk to them, they know I'm for real because of what I went through to reach this point," he said.
The program costs about $50,000 a year, Cain said. It is financed by the seminary, the Louisiana Baptist Convention and private donations.
At Mississippi State Penitentiary in Parchman, Miss., there 75 students enrolled and 35 have already graduated from the associate degree program.
At Georgia State Prison the first associate degrees were awarded in December.
"We made mistakes and we ended up here," said Paul Will, 36, a New Jersey man serving a life sentence at Angola for aggravated kidnapping. "But our lives haven't ended. We can still do some good in this world."