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  • Rob Will

Field Ministers and Faith Based Sections on Texas Death Row: Amazing!

Updated: Dec 28, 2021

As I have been talking about and writing about a lot recently, there are some amazing things going on here at the Polunsky Unit. An integral part of all of this was the arrival of the Field Ministers on this unit about six months ago. There are six prisoner Field Ministers here now and they all graduated from the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary— Darrington Campus (on the Darrington Prison Unit in Rosharon, Texas) with college degrees. This program— as well as the positive changes occurring on this unit— are modeled after the amazing work that Warden Burl Cain (and colleagues) did at the Angola unit in Louisiana. Polunsky Field Minister Terry Solley speaks about this in his book: Exiles, A Prisoners Daily Devotional (co-written with off unit fellow Field Ministers Johnny Blevins and Jason Karch):


In 1995, transformation began to take place inside the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola— one of America's bloodiest prisons. The prisoners there were blessed by a godly Warden Burl Cain, who felt responsible not just for their correction and safety, but also for their souls. Led by God, Warden Cain established the first accredited seminary inside a prison. Then something phenomenal took place: the men of Angola began to pray, not merely for themselves and their families, but for the prison where they lived. Two decades later, Angola is one of the safest prisons in the world and a glaring example of what the Lord will do when people, incarcerated, begin to seek His face for the prosperity of their place of exile.


The Field Ministers do indeed minister, but they also act as peer educators and mentors. They help promote and coordinate various educational and reform programs on the unit and act as all-around problem solvers. The work that they are doing is absolutely amazing. There are plenty of people in the Criminal Justice Reform movement who certainly have an aversion to any “Jesus and God talk” and tend to keep religion out of political involvement and social justice endeavors. Understand this though: in Texas prisons, the majority of positive programming that promotes education, positive behavior and reduces recidivism, is what they call “Faith Based” (mostly Christian, by far). These Faith Based Programs work— they benefit prisoners, their families, staff, and most importantly, society as a whole.


Around 70 to 80% of prisoners on this unit will make parole and be released out into society. As all studies have shown, the number one factor in reducing recidivism is the education people receive while in prison. Reducing recidivism is crime prevention. Right now, there is one former Death Row guy— who received a Life sentence— who is in his fourth year at the Southwestern Theological Seminary and will graduate soon and become a Field Minister. There were two other former Death Row guys who got Life who have been peer educators and mentors on other units and involved with Faith Based programming for years now. The Texas Death Row exoneree, Anthony Graves, has done absolutely amazing social justice work since being released. He has taught and written a lot about how other guys here greatly helped with his education, personal growth, evolution, and development of social consciousness that motivates and guides him in the work that he does today. Other Death Row exonerees have talked about this as well (in Texas and in other states).


For these reasons— and many others— everyone should be supportive of the new Faith Based Programming being instituted on this unit. This includes the Field Ministers, the new prison radio station, and something that I'm particularly excited about: the Faith Based Sections on Texas Death Row. There will be two sections with a total of 28 people and I am one of them. We have all already been moved to the sections but the year long program doesn't officially start until the first week of December. We all had to go through an application process— including answering some essay questions— and pass various security screening measures. This is all completely new so things are constantly evolving and taking shape.


Out of the 28, 25 of the guys are Christian, 2 are marginally Buddhist and I am what I guess could be called very multi-religious. For over a decade, my file has had my religion listed as Hindu (and before that nothing). The Hindu faith is something very close to my heart and I tend to follow the tradition that sees all religions as different paths leading to the same One. I explore many paths and engage in various forms of study, rites, rituals, prayer, meditations and other practices on a daily basis. This is an integral part of who I am and informs and shapes all that I do in life. I see participating in the Faith Based Programming as a righteous form of Criminal Justice Reform and social justice activism for all involved, prisoners and staff. Outside volunteers have been involved as well and more outside support is needed.


I've been talking with the Field Ministers a lot about ideas for outside sponsorships and I've been writing people trying to help put some things in motion. I never would have previously imagined that I would say such a thing, but oh yes, I am most certainly strongly advocating that people on the outside support the Warden and other ranking staff and administrative officials who are instituting the new programming and enacting positive changes here on the unit. This is really part of the system-wide change in TDCJ culture. The new TDCJ Director, Bryan Collier, came from the Industry sector so he thinks more like a businessman. There are other newer staff in key positions with a different type of mentality as well.


Interestingly, I've recently heard a conservative Republican strategist on a new program talking about how more and more conservatives are taking a “smart on crime” approach versus the outdated “tough on crime” stance and he voiced support for this. Generally, TDCJ administrative staff are going to be very conservative and very Republican, but more and more of them are starting to think along those lines. This is a good thing and deserves to be acknowledged and supported. There are obviously still a whole lot of problems within the system and systematic injustice and oppression should be fought against relentlessly, no doubt— but positive actions by TDCJ staff and officials should also be recognized and fully endorsed as well.


There are still problems on this unit but things have been changing for the better, in both small and broader and even absolutely amazing ways. Our current head warden, Warden Dickerson, is the most respected warden we've ever had— by both staff and prisoners, and that's saying a hell of a lot! He actually used to be on the five-man hit squad SWAT team on this unit back when he was a C.O and a sergeant. No one would really ever accuse him of being “soft” or “friendly” towards inmates in any way. He is just intelligent, professional and like Burl Cain, a man of faith. There are other ranking staff on this unit who fit that description (in a way that has never existed before). Also, like Burl Cain, Warden Dickerson takes a real harsh approach to criminal activity by prisoners (violence, sexual misconduct towards female staff, gang activity, sex slavery-prostitution, extortion, etc.). Guys who are into those types of things obviously really hate how the culture of the unit has been changing. Most support the changes though and see them as very positive.


Just now I glanced down at my legs and looked at the permanent scars I have from being hit with nine rounds from a Crowd Dispersal Rifle during a direct-action demonstration I conducted as part of a protest campaign here. I've engaged in many such demonstrations and campaigns protesting the oppressive conditions and sadistic actions of staff members. I’ve been gassed and gassed and gassed and caused many SWAT team deployments and dealt with Use of Force run-ins plenty of times. Others who are still here had the same experiences while engaging in these campaigns. This place was a madhouse run by sadistic maniacs back then and such activity was warranted and necessary. We fought and bled even though we remained non-violent, much violence was forced upon us. Through righteous organized direct action protest campaigns we absolutely forced staff to engage in some reforms on this building.


Some things changed and some didn't. The last campaign was, wow, around 10 years ago and I haven't been on disciplinary status since then. Some of the reforms that we fought for back then are happening now and TDCJ staff are actually initiating and implementing them. A skeptical snarky liberal response might be “Well, it's about time! All Texas is doing is finally starting to move towards more rational prison policies that already exist in other states, including Southern states”. It has also been suggested that the positive changes occurring on Texas Death Row are only happening because Death Row inmates in other states have won lawsuits regarding their conditions, which were better than here before the lawsuits. There may be some validity to these ideas, but the positive changes are still quite amazing. And I must add that I personally spoke with some of the TDCJ staff who are pushing for these changes, like 15 years ago. They said we shouldn't be housed in super-seg solitary confinement and we should have more privileges like general population, way back then. I see the Field Minister Program and Faith Based Sections as important steps, yes, but also as steps along a path leading to much better things in the future.

NOTE:

I've written about this before, but Texas Death Row had some of the best conditions in the system when it was housed at the Ellis unit. In 1999 some guys made a failed escape attempt and that's when everything changed. In response, TDCJ had the knee-jerk reaction of “take EVERYTHING from them and destroy-destroy-destroy their very souls and move them into the harshest and most vile environment that exists within this prison system!”. They did just that and moved all Texas Death Row inmates here to the Polunsky Unit shortly after.

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