Pepperdine studies Parchman, faith-based programs

Can faith-based programming make a difference behind prison walls? A long-term research project at Pepperdine University is currently trying to figure this out – with help from the Mississippi Department of Corrections.

Andrew Johnson, a professor at Metro State University’s School of Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice in St. Paul, Minnesota, and Byron Johnson, a professor of social services at Baylor University, are leading the research project, which is about halfway through its investigation.

The Clarion Ledger recently spent an afternoon with Andrew Johnson at a cafe in Starkville, talking about his and Byron Johnson’s work. Andrew Johnson had been at the South Mississippi Correctional Institution the day before and was headed to the Mississippi State Penitentiary in Parchman the next day.

“I was interested in this intersection of religion and prison, so I was asked to do a project in Mississippi,” said Andrew Johnson.

He began working on the study in June 2022 and has been visiting Parchman about once a month since. He said Parchman Superintendent Marc McClure gave him access to virtually every part of the prison, including Unit 30, the prison’s largest unit, and Unit 29, which houses male death row inmates.

“I have to admit, I arrived skeptical because I’ve read so much and seen so much (about Mississippi prisons),” he said.

Johnson’s first visit to death row was very different from today.

“I remember walking through there with some of the guards’ weapons behind and in front of me,” he said.

McClure had been superintendent of the prison for about two months. At the time, men sentenced to death were held in their cells for 23 hours a day. When McClure took office, that started to change, Johnson said.

“The next time I visited a few months later, they were gone at eight and back at six,” he said. “There has been a huge change on death row – and there is some hope.”

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Andrew Johnson and Byron Johnson have created a short documentary to show how men imprisoned in Parchman can sometimes find peace, hope and even joy. Looking at the qualitative data, faith-based programs appear to be working, Andrew Johnson said.

For years, Parchman’s death row inmates have had their own makeshift church, called the Dog Pen, where they hold worship services and prayers. In 2021, ground was broken on a 6,000-square-foot non-denominational chapel in Unit 30, which can accommodate up to 250 people. The chapel was privately financed.

One of the chaplains, Ron Olivier, was incarcerated in Angola Prison in Louisiana, where he became an ordained minister. Olivier was released on parole from Angola in 2018.

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Mississippi Department of Corrections Commissioner Burl Cain was director of Angola, which like Parchman is a maximum-security facility with a long history of violence and poor living conditions.

Having a chaplain who has been on the outside but is now free also gives inmates a glimpse into what their lives could be like if and when they are released from prison, Johnson said.

“What will it look like when I get out of here,” he said. “Now they have some examples of what that would look like.”

When Cain first stepped into his role as head of the state prison system in May 2020, he knew he had his work cut out for him.

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State institutions were full of riots caused by gang wars and protests over the appalling conditions in which prisoners had to live. The coronavirus pandemic had just begun and the captured men and women were locked up for weeks without contact with the outside world. a time.

To compound the problems, there was a severe shortage of guards, some of whom were suspended, fired or banished from prisons for alleged misconduct, including bringing in contraband.

One of the first things Cain wanted to do was what he called “moral rehabilitation,” or teaching prisoners how to tell right from wrong. He planned to bring more faith-based opportunities to the state’s prisons, a mission he has consistently promoted, including opening a similar chapel for female inmates at the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility.

“We find morality more quickly in religion than anywhere else,” Cain said in a 2020 interview with the Clarion Ledger.

Based on what Johnson has seen at Parchman and other state prisons, his research appears to support the project’s basic ideas, including “deepening our understanding of the power of spiritual practice in the midst of suffering.”

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In addition to studying the influence of religion on people in prisons, it hopes to apply some of what it learns to help people grow through faith outside prison walls.

“It’s been a remarkable 18 months for me,” said Andrew Johnson. “What’s really striking is how quickly things can change. I think with new leadership that’s willing to take a risk and say, ‘I’m going to treat these guys with dignity and humanity, even if it exposes me to criticism.’ “

MDOC had a seminary for men and last year opened a seminary for women at the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility to learn how to minister to fellow inmates so they could do peer-to-peer counseling and other outreach within the prisons.

Officials at MDOC welcomed Pepperdine’s interest in the state’s prisons and their faith-based programs.

“The Pepperdine research project chose Mississippi as a follow-up to a previous study of Commissioner Cain’s success in seminary, reentry and faith-based programs,” MDOC spokesperson Kate Head said in an email. “These programs implemented in Louisiana proved to be very useful in Angola. The research project will be a study of how useful these programs are in Mississippi. The project will include meeting with correctional officers, inmates and Commissioner Cain to see how these programs are beneficial to the lives of incarcerated individuals.”

For more information about Pepperdine University’s research project, visit

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