LINCOLN COUNTY, Ark. – It’s graduation weekend for colleges across this state, but one is a bit different and in some ways a bit more life-altering.

Seniors are preparing to cross the stage in their caps and gown and accept their diplomas. However, on Friday a different group of graduates reached that milestone. Instead of earning their degree in the classroom, they earned it behind bars.

Inside the Varner Unit in Lincoln County, a high-security state prison for men, some of Arkansas’s most dangerous criminals are living out the rest of their days.

Andre Dunn is one of them.

“I am incarcerated for first-degree murder. I came to prison in November of 2006, and I am currently serving a life sentence,” Andre Dunn said.

However, instead of just doing time for a crime he committed, Dunn, along with 17 other inmates have committed themselves to an entirely different path in life.

On Friday, the Arkansas Department of Corrections Prison Seminary Program graduated its very first class. Eighteen inmates earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Christian studies.

“It gives me a sense of accomplishment. It makes me feel good,” Dunn said.

It’s a moment Sherman Noble, who has been in jail since he was a teen, never thought was possible.

“In high school, I didn’t get the opportunity to walk across the stage and receive a diploma because I was in the streets, so I never walked across the stage. This is one of the best feelings I have ever felt,” Sherman Noble said.

Over the course of four years, the inmates studied the Old and New Testaments and received extensive training in biblical counseling. It’s part of the Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary, which launched the prison initiative in Arkansas in 2019.

“Some of these guys when they started felt like they didn’t have any hope, any purpose. Now, four years from now, they are walking out with a sense of accomplishment, a sense of purpose that, ‘hey, I can make a difference and I can do something that will be good,” Mark Thompson, Director of the Arkansas Prison Initiative said.

With degrees in hand, the inmates can apply to the Division of Corrections’ Field Ministry Program, allowing them to minister to other inmates across the state.   

“Jesus can change anybody and use anybody and so these men, even though they made a terrible mistake, can be used in ADC to encourage other men, change other men and do great things,” Thompson said.

For Dunn and Noble, life outside these walls may not be within reach, but a life dedicated to God and serving others now is.

“I feel like this is a new beginning. I feel like a door is opening and that God is directing my path,” Dunn said.

The inmates must go through a selection process to enter the program. They must also have a GED and be on good behavior to be selected.