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Center for Faith and the Common Good Explores the Impact of Spiritual Practice on Inmates in Mississippi’s Parchman Prison

Inmates praying inside the Parchman Prison

In 2012, Byron Johnson, co-executive director of Pepperdine University's Center for Faith and the Common Good, initiated a three-year study examining how the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary project at Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, Louisiana, positively influenced the daily lives of the inmates. The program, which began in 1995, eventually expanded to multiple facilities nationwide, including the Mississippi State Penitentiary in Parchman, Mississippi, a maximum-security prison notorious for its history of violence and poor living conditions. In 2023, Johnson and a team of filmmakers visited Parchman to document inmates' experiences in the program and highlight the transformative impact of spiritual practices in challenging environments. The recently released documentary, A New Morning at Parchman Prison, explores how Christian practices like prayer, Bible study, and group singing influence human flourishing.

“It is always special to observe the ways in which worship and fellowship affects these men. Despite their circumstances and environment, their growing faith allows them to be not only resilient, but to become other-minded as they seek to serve others,” Johnson shares. “Capturing these experiences of identity transformation with qualitative and quantitative tools is essential to our ongoing research of what it means to truly flourish.”

The program centers around a seminary within the prison that trains ministers and leads inmate congregations and ministries. Participants can earn associate’s and bachelor’s degrees in Christian ministry, enabling them to minister within the prison. Those involved in the program live in the same zone and worship together on Sundays. Research indicates that the program has contributed to a decline in negative prison culture, such as gang activity and violence.

According to Johnson, the goal of this study is to examine the impact of the seminary in transforming lives of the men who are students and to capture a unifying human experience in one of its bleakest realities. “We want to understand the role of faith in helping prisoners to experience human flourishing and an identity transformation,” he says. “Moreover, we hope to understand the role of individual transformation and flourishing upon the larger prisoner culture.”

Visit the Center for Faith and the Common Good website to watch A New Morning at Parchman Prison.