I walked laps around the beaten red clay track on the rec yard at Nash Correctional with a Muslim friend who told me, “You’ll learn a lot in the seminary, but the professors have no problem condemning you to hell for not following Christ.” He was in his second year in the North Carolina Field Minister Program. 

As an atheist considering enrolling in the program, I needed to learn everything I could. “So they accept all faiths, but they don’t tolerate those faiths once they’re in school?” I asked.

“It’s not about what they tolerate,” he said. “It’s about you tolerating what they preach in order to get a college degree as a man serving life without parole.”

He was right. I had no other option for education. North Carolina ended state funding for higher education in prisons in 2011, opting instead to offer only vocational training at select facilities. And while higher education in North Carolina prisons might be expanding with the return of Pell Grants last summer, those serving longer than 10 years, especially lifers like me, are currently excluded. If I wanted a college degree, I had to enter the field ministry program. Graduates of the program earn a bachelor’s degree in pastoral ministry through the College at Southeastern, the undergraduate school of the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, a regionally accredited private not-for-profit college.

Seminaries emerged as a form of higher education in prisons after the federal government eliminated Pell Grants for incarcerated people in 1994. With the first starting at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, there are now more than 20 across the country. All follow the Angola archetype of being funded solely by private donations. While the state of North Carolina has refused to fund prison education for lifers, it has been eager to embrace financially independent programs and to display incarcerated graduates as shining examples of moral rehabilitation. Nevermind that most participants are lifers destined to die in prison.

The field ministry program deploys its graduates to prisons across the state to proselytize to other prisoners. Seminary programs with this model are not meant to bolster education where it lacks in carceral systems. By only accepting those serving decades behind bars, the seminary program guarantees the extended servitude of agents employing Jesus in an attempt to emasculate the violent prison culture.

I know this because I enrolled in the fall of 2019.

A differing opinion
As an atheist, I am not an enemy of religion. My earliest memories depict me squirming in an ill-fitting suit on the red velvet pews of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s church. I disavowed belief in a deity after studying how Romans blended their rituals with Christianity to create the Catholic church. Looking past the mysticism supporting religion helped me view all faiths as modern mythologies, not realities. My opinions differ from many, but I never profess to be right about anything. For me, belief is preference, not a provable fact. I entered the field ministry program to earn a college degree, but also to serve as an atheist field minister who could relate to anyone, especially non-Christians. Too bad the seminary was not as open-minded.

As a seminarian I witnessed the unconstitutional merger of church and state daily. According to North Carolina’s prison policy, incarcerated field ministers cannot serve as clergy because ministry roles extend leadership over others. Unofficially, students and graduates are encouraged to preach in cell blocks, hold raucous weekend revivals, and host Christmas parties that unfairly infringe on non-Christians. From what I’ve seen, no other faith group is allowed to hold religious ceremonies aside from their allotted one-hour weekly service.

Prison officials give preferential treatment to Christianity because they consider it safer than other faiths, such as Islam, by promoting good old fashioned Southern Baptist values.

During junior year, my Christian ethics professor stood at the head of class shouting, “Exodus 20:24 declares ‘an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, and a death for a death!’” He was trying to justify the death penalty in a classroom full of men who had been convicted of murder. Similar tone-deaf sermons masqueraded as college lectures in most classes, and Christian students usually agreed with the professors’ declaration of their own condemnation. Professors sought me out for a differing opinion.

“Since you don’t believe in creation,” my theology professor began, “how did the world come into existence?”

“I don’t know,” I replied.

“If you don’t believe in God, surely you believe in Darwinian evolution! The big bang theory!”

“I don’t believe in anything,” I said cooly. “I don’t know how the world began. I wasn’t there, and neither were you.”

Our theological discussions usually ended in the professor’s frustration. For them, the Bible offered an inerrant authority in all things. For me, the Bible fostered a flawed compilation of ancient religions that presented more questions than answers about life, morality, and the origin of Earth. If the Bible considered abortion murder, no shift in modern thought could convince them otherwise. Professors asked my opinion not because they cared, but because they wanted to argue their position.

In American literature, we studied how slave masters exploited the Bible to justify slavery by labeling a slave’s condition God’s will. I found seminarian programming no different. Program leadership preached obedience to, and acceptance of, our draconian prison sentences as God’s will and expected us to teach others the same. I vocally disagreed.

Seminary faculty often pointed to data suggesting these programs lessen prison violence. What they don’t mention is that the same data they quoted would also show how public, secular colleges could achieve, or do achieve, similar results. The Federal Bureau of Prisons has always credited education with reducing recidivism and violence. Violent recidivism remains one of the greatest public fears when discussing criminal justice reform. Reductions in violence cannot solely be attributed to Christian college programs, especially when participants explain how religious programs are not what they appear to be.

Geoff Martin has served 21 years of a life without parole sentence. He entered the field ministry program as a “moderately engaged” Christian with “no real interest in theology.” After graduating, Geoff now identifies as an agnostic who is “no longer committed to Christianity.” Geoff believes the seminary can benefit the prison system, but “thinking critically about theology,” as a result of his theological studies, made him doubt Christianity.

Robert Odom, a Muslim lifer who served 20 years, transferred after graduation in December 2022. Before deploying, he was concerned that he would be forced to reach character-based classes, such as Thinking for a Change and Fatherhood Accountability. Both classes were formerly taught by salaried employees, not field ministers earning $3 a day. Odom said he doesn’t like being used as a supplemental state employee.

If given a chance, Martin and Odom, who were both incarcerated with me at Nash Correctional Institution before they were transferred to be field ministers, would have rather attended a secular, public college than a Christian school.

There’s no freedom of choice for education
After finishing junior year, I was forcibly removed from the seminary when school officials found an article I typed for a law journal on my flash drive. Using school computers for personal projects is an ethics’ code violation. I was told the expulsion would last one year. I hated leaving for a number of reasons.

Although I do not believe in a deity, I learned how to think critically by examining every piece of literature I read. I enjoyed helping others learn the difficult skill of academic writing. And I hated losing my only chance to earn a bachelor’s degree as a man serving life without parole. Currently, for people like me, there is no freedom of choice for education in North Carolina. It’s the seminary or nothing at all.

I reapplied the following year, but I was told that I didn’t seem repentant enough to atone for my transgression, so I was not readmitted.

How ironic. An atheist is not repentant enough.

Luckily I earned 96 credit hours to be applied toward a degree that I can finish through correspondence, but it will cost thousands of dollars that I don’t have. No matter. I made the best of my education while it was available.

Several field minister cohorts have graduated and deployed to other prisons. There has been no specific change in prison culture since the seminary began classes at our institution in 2017, and I don’t believe there will be. Field ministers cannot transform prison culture as long as carceral systems refuse to address systemic deficiencies like poverty in prison with low paying job assignments, drug addiction with no drug treatment programs, and lengthy mandatory minimum sentences that cannot be reduced through a display of positive transformation. Improving the criminal justice system is too much for field ministers to handle alone without meaningful changes to the damaging laws that created the negative prison culture in the first place.

In my experience, prison seminaries are a novelty for states to extol, not a necessary solution to mass incarceration.

Phillip Vance Smith, II has been incarcerated for 22 years. As a member of the Society of Professional Journalists, his writing has been published in Slate, Logic(s), and The North Carolina Law Review. His collection...