The men sat around the table, Bibles in hand, as Juan Martinez spoke of the suffering he has inflicted on his family and others. The Texas native was involved in the drug trade for a decade. He has been in prison for 11 years and has four years to go. But Martinez, 41, wasn't just speaking to his fellow inmates. He was talking to God.
The men sat around the table, Bibles in hand, as Juan Martinez spoke of the suffering he has inflicted on his family and others. The Texas native was involved in the drug trade for a decade. He has been in prison for 11 years and has four years to go.
But Martinez, 41, wasn’t just speaking to his fellow inmates. He was talking to God.
God is “immovable and infinite,” he said. “ I need to adjust myself to his being.”
Martinez and eight other men in brown and light-blue jumpsuits are the inaugural class in the prison seminary at Marion Correctional Institution.
The seminarians reflect the diversity of the 2,600 inmates at the prison, about 55 miles north of Columbus, where the average sentence for inmates is nine years and four months.
The idea of establishing a seminary within a prison came from the Rev. Murthy Kola, a chaplain at the prison. It took nearly a decade to establish the school, which officials said is the only one in an Ohio prison.
“The prison community needs leaders, especially positive ones,” Kola said. “So much happens (in prison), and (seminarians) are right there to help” their fellow inmates.
Courses are taught by divinity professors from Winebrenner Theological Seminary in Findlay in northwestern Ohio. They drive to the prison, where they make their way through a series of locked gates and doors to a small, plain room with barred windows.
The inmates spend three hours in the classroom each Wednesday. To earn a diploma — enough to be a minister in some Protestant churches — inmates must take the weekly class for three semesters a year for four years.
The seminary will be a year old on July 31. A new class of 10 inmates will start in September, Kola said.
This semester, students are studying “how God wants to use people to accomplish his mission on earth,” said Jim Ridge, who’s teaching the course. He is a part-time professor at Winebrenner’s “ Marion campus,” as the prison classroom is known.
Ridge complimented his students on the quality of their work. In their first two semesters, all nine seminarians have received straight A’s, Kola said.
The seminary is operated at no cost to the inmates or Ohio taxpayers. Textbooks, computers, other resources and the teaching are paid for or provided for free by Winebrenner and two area churches. Running the seminary costs $10,000 per semester.
Between classes, the inmates study the Bible and their textbooks. Several participate in other religion-based programs at the prison, such as counseling with the chaplains and church services.
“They want to learn what God has for them to do,” Ridge said. “They want to engage with what’s left in their life.”
During Wednesday’s session, the seminary students leafed through the Bibles and textbooks, revealing dozens of highlighted passages and sticky notes marking powerful passages.
One student described previous feelings as an outcast, relating it to a passage in the Bible. Another discussed conversion and “getting his heart right” for God.
The gathering was more conversation than lecture, with Ridge asking questions about the readings. Inmates responded knowledgeably and quickly. There were few quiet moments, except during pauses for prayer.
Such an environment spurs a better understanding of and connection with God, Ridge said, adding that for him, “I don’t have a religion. I have a relationship with God.”
Martinez, the only inmate cleared by prison officials to talk to a reporter, said he has been in the seminary since it started. He was raised in a religious family, he said, and he wound up in prison because he turned away from God.
“Faith is important,” he said. “My worldview, established on bad beliefs, brought me here. If my belief system is not changed, I’ll leave the same way (I came).”
Martinez moved to Fostoria in northern Ohio in 1993, 10 years before he was convicted. His children will be 18 and 16 when he gets out of prison in 2018, he said, and he wants to show them that their father has changed. And once he leaves prison, he wants to return — as a prison minister so he can help other inmates learn what he has learned.
Prison doesn’t lack “evangelism,” he said, but it’s not always the right kind. Many inmates were sent to prison because they were putting their faith in a destructive lifestyle instead of the Lord.
“It’s critical that men are snatched up while they’re in prison (and shown the positive) opportunity they have,” he said.
“What I could’ve used early on is someone telling me (life) is going to be a very long haul."