A new building at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola will give inmates more room to receive an education behind bars.

Opening Aug. 27, the 11,000-square-foot building will include classrooms, a computer lab, a library and a study room. It will be an extension of the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, which has been teaching classes at the prison since 1995.

Since then, 254 inmates have graduated with bachelor’s degrees in pastoral studies, the only major provided, and 17 more will receive their degrees in August.

“The seminary is a game changer,” said Warden Burl Cain.

He said it provides an opportunity to “morally rehabilitate” prisoners by teaching them to read the Bible and providing classes on topics such as Christian counseling and preaching methods.

Even though many of the students are serving life sentences, there is value in giving them access to higher education, the warden said. Having religiously educated prisoners makes Angola less violent, and graduates go on to serve as important role models to younger inmates, he said.

Mentorship is becoming increasingly important as Angola takes on a relatively new class of prisoners that eventually will be released back into the public. Since 2010, judges have been allowed to sentence nonviolent, nonsexual criminals to serve out their sentences at Angola, and the program has grown as judges around New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Lafayette have joined in.

The offender must earn a GED, study at one of Angola’s vocational schools and receive counseling in areas such as anger management. Their teachers are fellow prisoners, many of them lifers. After two years, prison officials can recommend the re-entry program participants be released on probation.

Assistant Warden Perry Stagg said staff look to fellow inmates for advice whether a short-timer is ready to get out, and if they have reformed and are prepared to live a law-abiding life on the outside.

The prison especially looks to seminary graduates for guidance, as their word is trusted and they have much contact with the re-entry program participants, often serving as their teachers or counselors.

The building opening later this month will provide spaces to teach the next generation of seminary graduates. The program is funded by donations, and an anonymous philanthropist provided $300,000, which covered nearly the entire cost for the extension building, which was built by inmates, many of whom received training through Angola’s vocational classes.

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