By Jon Herskovitz
ROSHARON Texas (Reuters) - In a solitary confinement unit at a maximum-security prison in Texas, convicted murderer Troup Foster offers spiritual guidance to offenders as a part of a program designed to spark a cultural change in the country's largest prison system.
Foster, 52, is one of 34 offenders in the first class of a university seminary school set up at the state's Darrington Unit. He is about to enter his senior year and has found a niche as a "tier walker" who ministers to inmates in solitary and offers moral guidance to some of the state's most hardened criminals.
"A lot of these guys are going home, and the public has to deal with them. If we can change some of those men's lives now and put them on a better path when they leave here, the public is going to be safer," said Foster, who is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole.
"For me, I am probably going to die here."
The Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, a private college based in Fort Worth, Texas, began its bachelor of science in biblical studies program at Darrington, south of Houston, about three years ago. To be accepted, an offender has to be at least 10 years from the possibility of parole, have a good behavior record and the appropriate academic credentials to enroll in a college course.
The program, which is largely paid for by charitable contributions from the Heart of Texas Foundation, has more than 150 prisoners enrolled and plans to send its graduates as field ministers to other units who want the bible college alumni for peer counseling and spiritual guidance. The first degrees are expected to be conferred next year.
"These guys ... know that their seat can be lost because of their behavior," said Ben Phillips, director of the Darrington program and an associate professor at the Southwestern Seminary. "Guys tend to weed themselves out over time if they are not serious about it."
The program, based on a similar one at the Angola unit of the Louisiana penitentiary system, is aimed at reducing violence inside and recidivism for those who are released at no additional expense to taxpayers.
Phillips said one goal is to instill accountability in students who will then take the message to the general prison population.
"Prisons have a tendency to take bad people and make them worse," he said.
For Foster and others who had earned certain perks for good behavior, enrollment in the program has made their lives a bit harder. To act as calming influences, they have been transferred to prison blocks with disciplinary problems.
The college will begin a new school year in the coming days with the senior class enrolled in courses such as "American Religious Movements," "Theological Issues in Prison," "New Testament" and "Contemporary Issues in American Culture."
The students, mostly Christian with a few Muslims and Jews among their ranks, have a reading list that ranges from the Bible to Aristotle to 19th century French historian Alexis de Tocqueville.
Dressed in white prison uniforms, they write papers on desktop computers cut off from the Internet in a crowded section of the prison that houses their seminary branch. For research, they rely on a library stocked with books on religion.
The Texas prison system, which has 150,000 inmates, is counting on the seminary school to calm its population.
"Part of TDCJ's core mission is to promote a positive change in offender behavior. We believe these men will be a powerful voice for other offenders as they complete this program and go out to other prisons," the Texas Department of Criminal Justice said in a statement.
Fourth-year seminary student Jake Strickland, serving a 35-year sentence for murder and a 10-year sentence for intoxication manslaughter, said he knows he can never make up for the anguish and grief he has caused the family of his victim but prays he can do some good by counseling offenders as he serves his sentence.
Fellow student David Ludwick, 30 and serving a life sentence for a capital murder conviction, said wants try to mend his ways as he braces for decades behind bars.
"Prison is the university of crime. You learn better methods to steal cars and burglarize homes," he said. "What this program is doing is producing leaders who can impact people’s lives in another way and teach them to be virtuous."
(Reporting by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Scott Malone and Douglas Royalty)