Changing lives: Theological education behind prison walls (Part 1).

Robin LaBarbera, PhD, DSW
Theological education is changing lives in prisonPhoto byWorld Impact

Seminary-level theological training for pastors. Such opportunities are rare for people in communities of poverty who might not qualify for admittance into a graduate program, and they might not have funds available to cover the steep tuition even if they were accepted into a program. 

Accessible, Affordable Seminary Training

Enter World Impact, Inc., an organization that offers The Urban Ministry Institute (TUMI), a Bible, theology and leadership training curriculum for the urban church, especially among the poor, in order to advance the Kingdom of God.

The goal is to help evangelize, disciple, plant, and pastor churches in unreached urban neighborhoods. TUMI’s passion is to identify, empower, and release laborers who can both display and declare God’s kingdom reign among their neighbors, where they live.

Seminaries in Correctional Facilities?

Yes, TUMI operates inside prison walls, too. The program, which is voluntary, prepares incarcerated men and women for faith-based employment, community service, and healthy family and social relationships through educational, values-based, Biblically centered programming.

TUMI was recognized as an official program by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Prisons in 2015, and it currently operates in over 68 correctional facilities in nine states across the U.S., serving 902 incarcerated men and women (with 699 cumulative graduates).

Need for Rehabilitation

Approximately 2.2 million men and women are held in prisons and jails across the United States on any given day, and more than 95% of these men and women will eventually be released back to their communities: That’s more than 626,000 people who are released from state and federal prisons annually, and more than 11 million people cycle through local jails each year.

Recidivism is the tendency of a convicted criminal to repeat or reoffend after serving their sentence. In the U.S., nearly 44% of those released will return before the first year out of prison, about 68% will be arrested for a new crime within three years, and 77% will be arrested within five years (World Population Review). TUMI is changing that trajectory.

Research from Inside Prison Walls

Across the country, men and women are being equipped with leadership and theological principles to impact their neighbors, even if those “neighbors” are with them in the prison or jail where they live. TUMI is changing lives and communities impacted by the criminal justice system and we have the qualitative and quantitative evidence to prove it.

Recently, I completed a year-long program evaluation to answer the question – “What is TUMI’s impact?” I was granted the rare opportunity to go inside prison walls and meet face-to-face with incarcerated men and women, many who were serving life or multiple life sentences. 

I interviewed 74 incarcerated men and women in jails and prisons throughout Kansas and Texas, 40 formerly incarcerated program graduates (some in California), and with the help of partners, we administered quantitative and qualitative surveys to 157 currently and formerly incarcerated participants across the U.S. 

I asked participants to rate their experience with TUMI, to self-evaluate their well-being (shown to be a key contributor to success in re-entry), and to discuss how participation in TUMI has impacted them. In semi-structured group interviews, I asked participants to “Describe the kind of person you were before going to prison/jail and who you are now that you have been a part of the TUMI prison training,” among other questions.

TUMI is Changing Lives

What I learned is that TUMI is truly changing lives. TUMI is equipping men and women for Christian leadership and service, it is creating healthy thinking patterns, it is bringing self-awareness and self-respect to its participants, it is creating positive interpersonal relationships inside and outside prison walls, and it is equipping participants with problem-solving skills, impulse control, the ability to manage negative emotions, and freedom from substance use disorders.

In the words of one participant, who was on year 29 of a 30-year sentence for a well-publicized crime: “It’s changed what I’m living for!”

In a series of articles, I will detail the results of my research. Each article will focus on one of the above-mentioned categories. Today, I highlight participant comments that fell into the “healthy thinking skills” category.

How to Facilitate Successful Re-entry

Promising treatment models for successful reentry focus on outcomes other than recidivism, according to research (See Pettus, Veeh, Renn, & Kennedy, 2021, for example for a detailed explanation).  Specifically, programs that address employment, problematic substance use, mental health systems, and trauma systems are the most successful and are more likely to be effective rehabilitation for an individual released from prison (Pettus et al., 2021).  

Pettus et al., creators of the Well-Being Development Model, advocate for a focus on psychosocial well-being, and they define well-being as “a state of satisfying and productive engagement with one’s life and the realization of one’s full psychological, social, and occupational potential” (2021, p. 430).

Psychological well-being builds an individual’s capacity to “see and accept their own strengths and weaknesses, have positive feelings about their lives thus far, and pursue a state of continued development and growth, using talents and potential to have close connections with others, manage demands of daily life, and have strength to follow personal conviction” (Pettus et al., 2021, p. 434).

Pettus and colleagues outlined five key facilitators of well-being development, including healthy thinking patterns, meaningful work trajectories, effective coping strategies, positive social engagement, and positive interpersonal relationships.

The Bar-On Model of Emotional-Social Intelligence has also been utilized in research with justice-involved individuals. The model is comprised of a number of intrapersonal and interpersonal competencies, skills, and facilitators that combine to determine effective human behavior (Bar-On, 2006).

Healthy Thinking Patterns

To define this category – healthy thinking patterns – I relied upon the thinking of both Pettus et al. (2021) and Bar-On (2006) to arrive at a definition of healthy thinking patterns or intrapersonal skills. This category includes one’s ability to be aware of oneself, to understand one’s strengths and weaknesses, to understand and relate well with others, and to successfully cope with daily demands, challenges and pressures. In other words, a person with a high degree of self-awareness, emotional regulation, self-regard, and the ability to strive to achieve personal goals and actualize one’s potential is less likely to recidivate.

Pettus et al. contend that “strengthening healthy thinking patterns allows individuals leaving incarceration to develop and improve problem-solving and communication styles and refine their decision-making skills while thinking about and caring for others as part of that process” (2021, p. 439).


While participants listed a combination of factors that influenced healthy thinking patterns, a majority cited the improvement of their sense of empowerment as one of the greatest impacts of the program. They felt empowered to turn from a life that lacked direction or purpose to one that is marked by purposeful engagement in ministry to others in their community and live out their faith.  

Leadership/role models:

Participants felt that the TUMI program empowered them to take on leadership roles and to serve as role-models in their communities inside prison and upon release. One participant said: “TUMI brought a leadership quality out of myself that I didn’t know existed.”

Others thought of themselves as responsible for being a positive role model to other inmates. One said: “I’m called to be more active and make a difference wherever I’m at, be available to them. People are watching what you do and the way you do it, and they’re like, ‘there’s something different about him.’ And just like that, you're bearing witness by your action in your life.” 

Several formerly incarcerated participants talked about how TUMI empowered them to start ministries, start a business, take leadership roles at work when given the opportunity, or provide Godly leadership to their families.


Many students felt that TUMI provided them with the tools they needed for roles in service to benefit others. This sense of empowerment has enabled students to envision building up their communities through ministry, motivational speaking, drug and alcohol counseling, volunteering in prison, higher educational pursuits, providing for their families, and more. Participants thought of TUMI as: “More than a class…it’s a lifestyle. I know I’m impacting where I live, those guys in my unit, and the rest of the prison as well.”


Another theme that emerged from the open-ended responses and interviews related to healthy thinking patterns suggests that the TUMI program positively impacted the way they view themselves—it brought on a new kind of self-respect, a new identity.


Over and over again, participants said TUMI impacted the way they define themselves, and they believed that definition shaped their behavior. Before TUMI, participants saw themselves as selfish, immature, manipulative, destructive, inconsiderate, and arrogant. One participant described his former self this way: “I’m the only one in my family who’s gone to prison—I’m the black sheep of the family.”

After TUMI, participants saw themselves in an entirely different light. One participant said she’d gone from seeing herself as: “A very mean and hateful person, especially towards myself” to “I am the person I now love more than I did before I came to jail, so I’m kinda glad that I did come to jail; I praise God for placing me in jail.”

Another said, “Before prison, I was living for the world and doing me and living for me. If I wanted something, I went out and got it, period. Now I live for Jesus Christ and daily want to do His will in and through my life.”

Self-efficacy as a learner:

Many participants felt that TUMI impacted their beliefs about their capabilities as a learner. They indicated that before TUMI, they considered themselves incapable of learning at such a high level. They were concerned about TUMI’s “college level” curriculum, given that many had “barely graduated high school” or did not excel academically.

When he heard about the academic level of TUMI, one participant thought: “Oh no, that’s not for me. I don’t have the ability or the confidence to complete a college course.”

Many felt that TUMI empowered them as learners and built their confidence and academic self-efficacy well beyond their imaginations.

Final Thoughts

Results from this evaluation thus far suggest that TUMI is positively impacting the lives of justice-involved individuals and their communities.

With Pettus et al., I advocate that, “Improving well-being may ultimately improve reentry outcomes and decrease return to incarceration” (2021, p. 448).

By focusing on the key factors of well-being development and social-emotional intelligence, we can guide the next generation of reentry-service approaches focused on the promotion of protective factors and positive behaviors among justice-involved individuals.

Exploring how participants and graduates of the TUMI theological training program describe and think of their experiences illuminates how policymakers and practitioners can create meaningful opportunities for rehabilitation for their clients. 

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Dr. LaBarbera is a researcher, educator, and social work advocate who is passionate about sharing content that informs, inspires, and empowers individuals to achieve their greatest potential.

Seal Beach, CA

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