A loud buzzer sounds, and David Tolliver pulls open a heavy blue door at the Jefferson City Correctional Center.
A guard at the desk gives him a cheerful greeting: “Morning, chap! How are ya?”
“Busy as always,” Tolliver replies as he enters his office and sinks into a chair.
A magnet on his file cabinet reads, “Bless the LORD. GOD is everything.”
That is his daily message to the men he counsels in prison.
Tolliver serves as chaplain at the maximum security correctional center, reaching inmates through his belief that faith can help turn them away from crime.
Next year, his mission will take on a broader purpose — training prisoners to become pastors who will spread the gospel to others behind bars.
Prisoners to ministers
The Missouri Department of Corrections recently announced a joint venture with Hannibal-LaGrange University to offer a four-year accredited college degree that teaches inmates to be field ministers. Penitentiaries in other states, including the notorious Angola prison in Louisiana, have been successful in training violent offenders and others to become preachers.
Angola inmates can enroll in seminary and earn either an associate or bachelor’s degree in Christian ministry, according to the Louisiana Department of Corrections. More than 300 inmates at the prison have earned Christian ministry degrees since 1995.
The Louisiana prison was the first in the country to move in this direction, and many of the Christian ministry graduates are serving life sentences for murder, according to Religion News Service.
The program at the Jefferson City Correctional Center, now in the development stage, will be similar. Inmates will take college-level classes through Hannibal-LaGrange, and their degrees will be funded by donations.
Much of the program setup, as well as guidance in fundraising, is provided by an organization called the Global Prison Seminaries Foundation. The foundation was started by Burl Cain, a former warden at Angola, as a way to defuse violence in prisons.
Spending 22 years as warden at Angola encouraged him to find an alternative to the practice of placing violent prisoners in solitary confinement as punishment.
“Corrections means to correct deviant behavior,” Cain said in an interview. “It doesn’t mean torture and lock in and feed.”
He did some research and decided that religious faith and conversion through field ministers could provide an answer.
“The quickest way I could find morality was through religion and through the seminaries,” he said. “We have research that backs up that this really works.”
The seminary foundation became a possible solution to reducing violence, not only in prison but also in the offenders’ home communities.
According to the foundation website, Cain has helped at least 16 prison seminaries adopt the Christian ministry model.
A recent study about the impact of prison ministry within the Darrington Unit, a maximum security prison in Texas, determined that inmates exposed to an in-prison ministry tended to report positive behaviors, including fewer criminal risk factors, greater sense of purpose in life and more spirituality.
The Jefferson City prison joined the movement after Stanley Keely, deputy warden of offender management, attended a Global Prison Seminaries Foundation conference last year.
Keely also visited the Darrington Unit in Texas, where he talked to graduates of the program and listened to their testimonies.
“For me, sitting down and talking to them put into perspective for me that we can plant seeds in these offenders,” he said.
The program is working toward a June launch, Keely said. Right now, the prison is working with Hannibal-LaGrange to find the classroom space, library and computer center needed to support a four-year degree.
The bachelor’s degree for inmates in Jefferson City will include a 60% concentration in biblical studies and 40% in counseling. The program does not, however, require prisoners to observe any particular religion.
“We aren’t really promoting religion, but moral rehabilitation,” Cain said. “We’re trying to change the culture. It’s not about religion. It’s not about church. It’s about morality.”
For the first graduating class, 20 to 25 students will be selected, and they must meet certain criteria to enter the program and remain in it. Selected students must strictly follow a no-violence policy, for example, and they must give up the jobs they now hold in prison.
“If they decide to start in this program, they’re gonna have a difficult decision of giving up other programs they are currently in to do this,” Keely said.
Eligible offenders must also have 10 or more years left on their sentences and must submit an application to the chaplain, Keely explained.
Tolliver will be the one who ultimately puts together a recommended list of applicants for the program director and warden.
Tolliver has been a pastor for at least 30 years and a chaplain at the state penitentiary for more than seven. He also spent a year as a correctional officer in the prison.
He said his tenure has allowed him to build a relationship of mutual respect with many of the prisoners.
“If you treat people respectfully, they respect you,” Tolliver said. “If you don’t, they won’t.”
As prison chaplain, Tolliver manages 10 larger faith groups and nine smaller ones within the prison.
Inmates who participate in a faith group have fewer problems in prison, Tolliver said. No matter the denomination, each faith group is centered on a moral compass that teaches inmates the difference between right and wrong.
Tolliver uses a database that charts the movement of prisoners and tracks any rules violations to ensure that prisoners requesting admission to a faith group are genuinely interested. He said the database will also be helpful in selecting prisoners for the new Christian ministry program.
At present, he is working on a list of 30 to 40 prisoners who he believes would be exceptional candidates.
“I am looking for character qualities of consistency — consistently not in trouble, holds respect of his peers and the staff and has a consistent record of cooperating with staff,” Tolliver said. “They have to have a record of encouragement.”
The influence of faith he sees on a prisoner’s behavior already makes him hopeful for the success of the new program.
“Even though my part in it is very small,” he said, “I’m happy to be a part of it at all.”