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Slideshow: In Darrington, Prisoners Become Preachers, Seek Redemption

Brazoria County’s 33 newest Christian ministers aren’t your typical men of God. Some have been convicted of murder, and those who aren’t murderers are locked away for other serious crimes – most of them violent.

A chapel inside the Darrington Unit, where inmates can participate in the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary program to become Christian ministers. The program, funded by the nonprofit Heart of Texas Foundation, was modeled after a similar effort in Angola, La.
State Sen. John Whitmire, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Grove Norwood, founder and CEO of the Heart of Texas Foundation, attended the commencement ceremony for the first graduating class on May 9, 2015. “It’s literally going to change the culture. It’s going to give hope to inmates who didn’t have hope before. It’ll improve safety for correction officers,” state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, said Thursday at a press conference touting the program.
The first graduating class of the program, taught by Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary professors inside the Darrington Unit, includes (from left) Leslie Monroe Capers III, Vondre Demond Cash and Gary L. Everett. To join the program, the prisoners must be at least 10 years away from eligibility for parole. That includes some who will spend the rest of their lives behind bars.
Graduate Lloyd E. Gregg sings a hymn during the commencement ceremony for the first graduating class of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary program. Collectively, Saturday’s graduates earned a 3.7 grade-point average in the program.
Patrick Anthony Russo of Texas is one of the 33 graduates of the prison seminary program at the Darrington Unit prison in Brazoria County. Those in the program "have changed remarkably in the four years – not just academically, but in terms of their behavior and their examples to other offenders,” Brad Livingston, executive director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, said Thursday. “These offenders will have an exponential impact.”
Lucien Joseph Parker, Tommy Quinones, and Raymond Ramirez, members of the prison seminary's first graduating class, line up inside the Darrington prison chapel to receive their diplomas.
Family members of inmates who are students in the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary program were inspired during the May 9, 2015, commencement ceremony.
Marion Hal Hooper receives his diploma during the commencement ceremony.
One of the 33 inmates who graduated from the prison seminary program at the Darrington Unit. By some measures, troublemaking is declining inside Darrington. Disciplinary infractions dropped about 17 percent between 2011 and 2014, while instances of contraband plummeted nearly 72 percent, according to agency data.
A look at the commencement ceremony for the first graduating class of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary program inside the Darrington Unit. Of the 185 total inmates enrolled in the program, about two-thirds have been convicted of homicide. About 30 percent of Darrington’s roughly 1,800 total inmates are serving sentences of 40 or more years, state data shows.
Graduates Vondre Demond Cash (from left) and Gary L. Everett smile at fellow graduate Troup Hubert Foster Jr., as he shows them his diploma. In 2010, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick – then a state senator – and Whitmire visited Angola, La., where officials credit their own program for changing the prison’s decades-long culture of violence. The Texas lawmakers said the site of smiling inmates leading others in prayer moved them and helped bring the program to Texas.
Here's another look at the commencement ceremony for the first graduating class of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary program inside the Darrington Unit. Ideally, the state would expand the program elsewhere in the coming years, such as its women’s unit in Gatesville, about 100 miles north of Austin, Whitmire said.
Graduate Leroy L. Youngblood takes part in the commencement ceremony for the first graduating class of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary program inside the Darrington Unit. Whitmire said that to bring such a program to Texas “is a miracle.”

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