BATON ROUGE, La. — Sixty-four inmates at Louisiana's most notorious prison earned seminary degrees to preach the gospel within the barbed wire topped walls of Louisiana State Penitentiary and other prisons.
The Leavell College of the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary Angola bestowed the bachelor of arts degrees in Christian Ministry Thursday during commencement exercises in the prison.
Twenty-three additional inmates were awarded graduate certificates in mentoring and are on their way to earning master of arts in Pastoral Ministry degrees.
The master's degree program began last year and is the first offered through the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary in a prison setting, according to a press release from the Louisiana Department of Corrections.
Thursday's graduation ceremony covered commencement from 2016 through 2018.
Louisiana State Penitentiary Warden Darrel Vannoy congratulated the inmates on their accomplishment.
Most of the new pastors will minister through the chaplains department, but some will become missionaries and sent to Louisiana's other state prisons to assist the chaplains departments in those facilities.
Others will serve as ministers in the prison's hospital and other areas throughout the penitentiary.
The ministers are also mentors and instructors in corrections re-entry court and other moral rehabilitation programs at Angola.
Officials said there has been a reduction in violence at the prison since the seminary program was founded in 1995.
Since Leavell College of the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary opened at Angola more than 300 inmates have earned seminary degrees.
Many of the ministers lead churches in their communities after their release from prison, official said.
Corrections officials said 12 other states have modeled seminary programs modeled after the one in Angola.
Greg Hilburn covers state politics for the USA TODAY Network of Louisiana. Follow him on Twitter @GregHilburn1