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JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri could soon have a small army of ministers behind bars in the state’s 20 lock-ups.

Under a program expected to get underway in December, the Missouri Department of Corrections is joining forces with Hannibal-LaGrange University to launch college-level classes designed to train murderers, rapists and other long-term inmates to be ministers.

The program is patterned after similar ventures in other states, including Louisiana, where the longtime warden of the maximum-security facility in Angola pioneered the idea of transforming the worst of the worst offenders into prisoners who will spread the gospel to their fellow inmates.

Since the seminary program was founded at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola in 1995, more than 300 inmates have earned seminary degrees.

An estimated 16 other states have modeled seminary programs after the one at Angola and two more are due to begin classes this fall, said Kristi Miller Anderson, chief operating officer of Global Prison Seminaries Foundation. The foundation is assisting Missouri and other states to start the programs.

In Missouri, Corrections Director Anne Precythe is pushing for the program to begin in December at the maximum-security Jefferson City Correctional Center. It’s one of a number of initiatives aimed at improving the state’s sprawling prison agency.

Agency spokeswoman Karen Pojmann told the Post-Dispatch that offenders first will have to apply for the program. If they qualify, they can earn a bachelor’s degree that focuses 60% on counseling and 40% on theology.

The bulk of participants likely will be offenders who are active in social situations in the prison, have a low rate of conduct violations and are serving long sentences.

For now, the program will be available only at male institutions.

“We plan to eventually make the pastoral ministry program available to offenders in women’s facilities, but we won’t be able to do it right away,” Pojmann said.

Anderson said the program focuses on long-term inmates because they have a stake in changing the culture of the prison where they reside.

“We feel like we’re getting more bang for the buck,” Anderson said.

After completing the degree program, the newly-minted college graduates can become ordained in their chosen denomination and will be assigned to work with the prison chaplains in providing spiritual counseling and support to fellow offenders, Pojmann said.

After about two dozen offenders have completed the program, they’ll be sent to facilities throughout the state so the agency can have at least one offender-pastor in each prison.

“This new program would add a peer-counseling component, which has been shown to be effective in improving outcomes for the offender-ministers and their peers in other prisons throughout the country,” Pojmann said.

The inmate-ministers eventually could be paid for their work, just as other prisoners are paid to make license plates, sew uniforms or build furniture.

“The director of adult institutions intends for this to be a paid job, but we haven’t worked out the details yet,” Pojmann said.

The state, however, does not plan to pay for the program, she added.

“The school will cover the cost of the program through fundraising, so there’s no cost to the department or the offenders,” Pojmann said.

Anderson said the program is popular with inmates and prison officials because it can bring down violence levels within the prison walls.

“There have been problems in Missouri. You guys had a big riot,” Anderson said, referring to a 2018 incident at the now-shuttered Crossroads Corrections Center in western Missouri. “This program gives the guys opportunity to have hope and meaning in their lives.”

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