Texas Foundation Helps to Start Movement in State Prisons that Could Change the Penal System Forever
Grove Norwood was just a small business owner and Sunday school teacher when he felt a stirring in his heart for those incarcerated in Texas state prisons. The twinge of empathy, he realized later, was in fact a call from God to not only minister to those who are behind bars, but to start a movement inside these maximum security facilities that would bring peace and reconciliation to the men who need it most.
In 2009, Norwood started the Heart of Texas Foundation—a group that gave presentations and seminars about the power of forgiveness and reconciling with loved ones and those they’d hurt inside some of the state’s most dangerous prisons.
“As we began to [give these presentations] the word began to get out,” he said. “I then got a call from Angola, Louisiana with an invitation to come and visit the Louisiana State Penitentiary. That’s where we discovered the tremendous difference between our prison systems as opposed to theirs.”
It was on this January 2011 trip to what was once called “America’s Bloodiest Prison” that Norwood and the members of the foundation realized that this old title was no longer true. The penitentiary was now one of the safest prisons in the country.
But what caused this drastic change? What caused these violent criminals to put away their fists and learn to be peaceful?
The answer came from Senior Warden Burl Cain who had been overseeing the nearly 6,000 inmates for 15 years.
“It was the Seminary Bible College,” he told Norwood and his colleagues. “We started the school during my very first year here. And from the very first year we began the school, our violence rate began to drop. Now, fifteen years later, the violence rate is down over 70 percent.”
When Cain became the warden he realized that the “lifers”—those with life sentences or extremely long sentences, were living a hopeless existence. So, he built a relationship with the local New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and eventually helped to put a seminary right inside the maximum security prison for inmates to take classes.
Cain said the graduates of the college had helped him in reducing violence and stopping fights before security had to get involved. They have taught classes and preached sermons. More than 25 churches have sprung up inside the prison at Angola and one of the churches is even a member of the Southern Baptist Convention and pastored by a “lifer,” who is a graduate of the Angola Seminary.
“We discovered for ourselves the first we had ever seen of fundamental prison reform in ‘real time,’” Norwood said. “A prison’s entire culture had changed, and done so from the inside out. The rule book had changed at Angola, because the men who lived there changed. When the inmates changed, the security staff changed. As the security staff changed, the Warden’s rule book began to change. In my opinion, when the penal rule book changes, you have penal reform. That’s what prison systems have been seeking for hundreds of years.”
The Beginning of the Movement
The Heart of Texas Foundation members came back to Texas with a renewed passion for replicating the same idea in Texas prisons. Norwood was especially affected by what he saw in Angola. The Angola Senior Warden, Burl Cain, told Norwood that he would help Norwood start a seminary in a Texas prison. Norwood took him at his word. And they became friends with a common vision.”
“I had already been called by the Lord to go into prisons, but it was the Angola trip that totally transformed me with a new vision,” he said.
Norwood and his team began a partnership with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, and was allowed to focus on the Darrington Prison Unit because of its proximity to the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’s J. Dalton Harvard School for Theological Studies in Houston.
“I called the president’s office without ever having met him and asked for an appointment,” Norwood said. “I went up there and spoke with him and asked him to join us in this work. He didn’t hesitate in saying yes. He already knew about the Angola miracle and the fact that their seminary had made a transformation.”
With the backing of the president, Governor Rick Perry, Senator John Whitmire, former Lt. Governor Dan Patrick, The Texas Department of Criminal Justice, and the Darrington Warden, the Heart of Texas Foundation opened the “Southwestern Seminary at Darrington” in the fall of 2011 with a class of 40 freshman. These men had been chosen from a pool of 600 applicants. Full-time faculty professors from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary campus in Houston were hired to come into the prison and teach on a daily basis.
“As the semesters wore on, another class of men, and then another, were bussed from prisons all over Texas to begin seminary. The population of the school swelled to nearly 180, where it is today,” Norwood said. “We now have four full classes in the seminary—freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and seniors. Beginning in May, we will graduate our first Senior class of nearly 40 men. But that is just the beginning. After they graduate, they will be transferred to other Texas prisons, as ‘Field Ministers.’”
Norwood is quick to point out that these men are not just going to be sharing the Gospel with the men in other prisons. They will be counseling, mentoring, teaching, preaching and helping to reduce violence by acting as mediators between inmates and inmates, and between inmates and the security staff.
“They will be a catalyst just as the disciples were,” he said. “They are can share the Gospel in a way that I cannot. They can help lead other prisoners to spiritual transformation and eventually moral rehabilitation. Our graduates are all lifers, and men with extremely long prison sentences, just like Angola’s. They will be ministering in our Texas prison system for many, many years after graduation, and ministering to men who will be getting out.”
Since beginning this program four years ago, the Darrington Unit is reported to have seen a reduction in violence, and many report that a culture change within the prison has begun. Inmate Seminary students are being allowed to do new kinds of activities that have heretofore not been allowed.
“As the men prove themselves to the prison system, we will see the Texas rule book change, just as it did at Angola,” Norwood said.
But although prisoners all over the state will be greatly affected by these field ministers, the true beneficiaries are the children of these incarcerated men, Norwood said.
“Eight out of 10 children of [imprisoned] daddies are destined to go to prison like their parents,” he said. “That’s what we’re seeing impacted at Angola, and I think the same thing will start happening here in Texas.”
Not only have lawmakers sat up and taken notice of what’s happening in Louisiana and at Darrington, but other prison systems in other states have also begun to realize the profound effect these seminaries have on the inmates and the penitentiaries as a whole.
The movement has already begun to spread to Florida, West Virginia, Mississippi and Georgia, Norwood said. And little by little others are calling to see how they too can launch their own prison seminary.
“Our vision is to help all of the states in the United States have just one seminary within one penitentiary that will be sending graduates out to other prisons in the state,” he said. “They just need one engine to be creating these equipped men.”
The Heart of Texas Foundation, through the kind support of its donors and contributors, works hard to fund all of the school’s expenses. For the school to be constitutional, all funding comes from private sources. The seminary is offered on a voluntary basis to all male inmates who qualify, and accepts qualified applicants from all faiths, religions and denominations. Because the school has reached its desired capacity of nearly 200 full time students in the four college levels, the Heart of Texas Foundation is now working to secure a larger building for the school, and hoping to remodel an old gymnasium on the prison’s campus into a state-of-the-art facility with classrooms, libraries and a fellowship hall.
“As long as the precious believers in Texas will continue to help us keep the bills paid, we will watch Texas lead the way in American prison systems with something that other states will see that they have to have. They are already noticing and asking, ‘how do we do this?’”