HOUSTON - On a warm May morning, a crowd gathered in the Darrington Prison unit's chapel. The occasion was the graduation of a group of inmates who had all chosen to walk a different path than the one that led them to prison.
"I've always known myself to be broken," said Raymond Ramirez. "I went through that stage of brokenness where you begin to cry out and you cry to God and you say, 'I'm sorry, I'm sorry, God, for all the sins I've committed.'"
Ramirez is 22 years into a life sentence for capital murder. For the last four years, Ramirez has served as a field minister; an inmate tasked with trying to touch the hearts and minds of other inmates.
"Somebody to pray with, someone to listen to them, someone to counsel them, someone to guide them and mentor them," Ramirez said.
Ramirez was in the first class of inmates who graduated from a Texas Department of Criminal Justice program that turns prisoners into ministers.
"I noticed that when I was reading this book," said recent graduate Emilio Cadena, referring to the Bible. "It was the one that I noticed started reading me."
Cadena, who is serving a life sentence for murder, is one of 34 inmates in the program's fifth graduating class.
"I just started feeling weight come off of me and I started learning," Cadena said. "I was already tired of living that life here, that's all I ever lived in prison. That's what got me to prison."
Only a little more than 30 inmates a year are selected for the four-year program. TDCJ executive director Bryan Collier said requirements include a high school diploma or GED, behavior in prison, passing an entrance exam and candidates must have at least 10 years left on their sentences when they graduate. At the end of the program, they earn a bachelor of science degree in Biblical studies from the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
"I believe changing somebody's heart is the first thing that has to happen before you change their mind," Collier said.
Collier said those who graduate become field ministers and are sent to prisons throughout the state.
"They bring a tool none of us have, which is credibility with the offender population. They've got more credibility with those other offenders because they've walked in those shoes," Collier said.
SWBTS president Dr. Adam Greenway said the program also hopes to give inmates the skills they need to be successful when released from prison.
"See people's lives change by the power of learning, the power of education, the power of giving these people skill sets and hope," Greenway said.
The program has an 84% graduation rate and the support of two of the most powerful men in Texas politics -- state Sen. John Whitmire and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. A video statement by Patrick was played at the recent graduation ceremony.
"We are proud of what you've accomplished and you will be doing the Lord's work," Patrick said.
A freshman in the program, John Jones, watched his fellow inmates graduate and said the program has given him a purpose to live, rather than exist. Jones is serving two life sentences for murder.
"When I look at that sentence, that's just what it is, but my life consists of more than that now," he said. "Waking up, laying down, you know everything counts now."
After the cameras stopped flashing, applause from family members died down and the cap and gowns were put away, each of the graduates was assigned to a prison unit. Their job now is ministering to fellow inmates, trying to shift them off the path that led to prison by spreading a message of hope.
"I just want to help that one person that's like me, where I was at," Ramirez said. "I wanted to serve God, I denied God the first time, I wasn't going to do it again."
According to TDCJ, 164 inmates are serving as field ministers in 33 prisons. Next year, TDCJ plans to begin recruiting its first class of female inmates.
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