One of the main components of OBU’s mission statement is to “transform lives.” This driving principle of life transformation inhabits every aspect of University life, from classrooms to chapel services, athletic competitions to residential life experiences. While life transformation is at the core of all OBU academic programs, perhaps its impact is most visible in one of the University’s newest initiatives, one which educates inmates inside prison walls.
The OBU Prison Divinity Program includes 40 full-time students, all inmates serving time at the Lexington Assessment and Reception Center (LARC) with the Oklahoma Department of Corrections (ODOC). The students are taking classes, taught by OBU professors, to earn a Bachelor of Arts in Christian studies, receiving instruction in the same Christian liberal arts curriculum as the students attending classes on Bison Hill. The program is the first-ever four-year bachelor’s degree to be offered inside an Oklahoma prison. The University plans to begin the next cohort of 40 students in fall 2023, raising the number to 80 students on an ongoing basis, launching a new cohort every two years thereafter as an earlier cohort completes the program.
OBU launched the Prison Divinity Program in partnership with ODOC and Oklahoma Baptists to positively transform the inmate population within the Oklahoma prison system through moral rehabilitation. During their studies, students will intern with prison chaplains and help lead discipleship classes. Then, upon completion of their degrees, graduates will be sent in teams of three or four as field ministers to other prisons throughout the state system. The LARC was specifically selected as the location for the program because inmates transfer to and from this facility to other prisons around the state.
The program is entirely funded through the generosity of donors, support through the Oklahoma Baptists and facilities provided by ODOC. While these sources have provided funding to launch the program, more support is needed for the future since the program is self-supporting.
The 40 men enrolled in the full-time program were selected from 172 applicants and 65 interviewees. In addition to their academic studies, these students are learning the traditions of Bison Hill and what it means to be an OBU student, including learning the famous school chant “Ka-Rip.” They also participate in worship and Bible study, similar to OBU students on the Shawnee campus.
Dr. Bruce Perkins serves as the director of the Prison Divinity Program and is also an associate professor of religion at OBU. He assumed his role as the founding director of the program in June 2020, following a successful tenure as OBU’s associate vice president for enrollment management.
Perkins is excited about the positive exponential impact this program is making on so many lives.
“The Prison Divinity Program is an expression of the OBU mission in that it seeks to transform lives through Christian liberal arts education. This transformation begins in the lives of the students and extends to the prison population where they reside, their families, the communities where the families reside and the prison culture throughout the Oklahoma prison system.”
OBU President Dr. Heath A. Thomas began working on this program while serving as the dean of OBU’s Hobbs College of Theology and Ministry. The idea was hatched several years ago through conversations with state senators who were passionately seeking ways to impact prisoners’ lives. Visits were made to prisons in other states to observe how similar programs have been implemented and assess their impact and feasibility in Oklahoma.
“OBU exists to transform lives by equipping students,” Thomas said. “When I think about the prison population in Oklahoma, there is an opportunity for gospel advancement. This provides moral rehabilitation while helping inmates understand the gospel, what it is to live well before the Lord, and what it is to make a positive impact in a community. We are thrilled about this opportunity and we are very grateful for this partnership with the Department of Corrections.”
The Lexington Correctional Center’s LARC facility houses dedicated space for the effort, with a self-contained classroom, office and library, as well as the resources necessary for the students to succeed. Perkins noted that the warden, chaplain and other administrators of the site had been praying for several years that their facility would be chosen to launch the program.
Last September, the University held a special Convocation service at the LARC to officially begin the fall 2021 semester, a service similar in nature to the one held every fall in Raley Chapel on the OBU campus in Shawnee. Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt, a strong supporter of the program, was on hand to encourage and congratulate the students on beginning their journey toward earning their college degrees. Stitt personally invested time and resources into the program since its inception and advocated for the program’s creation, after reviewing studies on the effectiveness of moral rehabilitation programs within prisons.
Stitt encouraged the students to persevere in their calling to ministry. “God has his hand on your lives,” Stitt said. “There’s no telling what He is going to do for you and through you.”
For the students in this program, God’s hand is guiding them to a future filled with life transformation and gospel proclamation.