PARCHMAN, Miss. (BP)–At Mississippi’s Parchman Penitentiary, 17 inmates and their families gathered in the prison’s visitation building to celebrate a first in the state’s prison system’s history -â€“ a seminary graduation ceremony.
Those 16 inmates made up the first graduating class of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary’s new Parchman extension center which began offering classes in 2005. NOBTS’ undergraduate ministry training at Parchman joins its inaugural prison extension center at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola.
The program at Parchman was jumpstarted by Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour’s wife Marsha. Shortly after her husband took office in 2004, she began to press for a more robust educational program within the prison system.
“I found out they didn’t have anything like this, and I challenged Haley’s staff to look at different models to see what other prisons were doing,” Marsha Barbour said. “Daryl Neely, Haley’s policy adviser, actually got to work on it, visited Angola, and that’s how it got started.”
So in 2005, with the support of Parchman Superintendent Lawrence Kelly and Parchman Extension Center director Johnny Bley, 34 students began coursework for the associate’s degree in Christian ministry.