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Life is changing in Texas prisons because of a seminary behind bars

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"The spirit of the Lord working in a man's life, regardless of where he's at, regardless of the walls, regardless of the cell, he's gonna make that life... he's gonna make it worth living. "
Rene Nieto

Those are the words of convicted killer-turned preacher, Rene Nieto.

Randy Beamer, a reporter at our affiliate WOAI, spent some time with Nieto as he was checking on his fellow inmates at the William G. McConnell Unit, the state prison in Beeville, Texas.

Nieto is one of nearly 100 graduates of a seminary inside a prison unit in east Texas, a group that wardens say is really beginning to improve the atmosphere behind bars.

"I had a violent nature at that time. I was a different person."
Rene Nieto

The 48-year-old Nieto tells us his life as young man revolved around drugs and that eventually led to murder. This eventually led him to prison.

"I rolled the dice, I played the game and I lost. So [I thought] what now?...I still got eternity."
Rene Nieto

And when faced with a 70-year-sentence, he says his anger and violence just got worse, which earned him some time in solitary.

"And it was there that I found Christ at that time - in that place."
Rene Nieto

But Nieto's story is not just that of another 'Jailhouse Conversion,' of somebody walking the straight-and-narrow path now, maybe trying to get special privileges or even to get out a little early.

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That's because Nieto went on to complete years of challenging studies in the state's growing new program and then went to work - all while still on the inside.

JAILHOUSE SEMINARY

In 2015, he graduated from the new four-year seminary in the Darrington Prison Unit in Rosharon, south of Houston.

Approved by Texas lawmakers in 2011, it's modeled after a similar program which has helped turn things around at the notorious Angola State Prison in Louisiana.

The seminary in Texas is an extension campus of the respected Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth.

The non-profit Heart of Texas Foundation funds the seminary, so it doesn't cost taxpayers.

It's also not easy. And it's not online.

While you might think it would be easier for inmates to study through online course, they can't because of security concerns.

When they graduate with a bachelor's degree in Biblical Studies, they're known as Field Ministers.

Ninety-six of them are now spread out at 19 maximum-security prisons across Texas.

"I just come in, talk to the guys, see how they're doing. I let them know I'm here. So it's like a ministry of presence. Sometimes they don't want to say anything. They don't want to talk. So I leave 'em alone. But it's really just coming into the wings and letting 'em know I'm here, that I'm a Field Minister. And I'm always going to run into somebody that wants to talk to me."
Rene Nieto
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Texas prisons have long had chaplains and counselors and various worship services for prisoners.

But inmates and prison officials tell us the Field Minister program is different, because these preachers know what it's like.

All of them have years still left on their sentences So they can relate to those they're ministering to.

Nieto has another ten years before he's even eligible for parole.

"Does it help that he's a prisoner. That he's been here?" we ask an inmate. "It does. You can definitely be closer. You know, you're both in the same color clothes and it does make a difference," he responded.

In fact, the seminary program won't even consider an inmate's application unless he has at least 10 years left to serve.

Officials say that guarantees that they are committed to the program and that they will repay that investment.

"Hey how's your wife doing, man? She doing better?" Nieto asks a prisoner, as they spend some time talking through the door to the man's cell.

Nieto says much of his ministry is helping fellow inmates deal with problems their loved ones are having - on the outside - which prisoners feel powerless to do anything about.

"You know, [inmates' loved ones] are dying, they're getting sick. And those are the guys that I get a lot. They're always calling me. You know, hey, my child's sick or my mother my aunt. And those are the guys that I do a lot of ministry with."
Rene Nieto
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LISTENING HELPS

"And he listens to us," one inmate tells us. "You know, that's something you don't find too often. Because a lot of times when somebody comes in, they're in for one thing in particular.

"He takes time out of his day for whatever he can help you with and that's a blessing. Field Ministers have brought a lot of positive influence, a lot of positive stuff in here. It gives us hope. And the way we can see Jesus working through them and the changes they made in their lives, it gives us hope that if Jesus can do it for them, he can do it for us."

Nieto also spends some of his time preaching sermons and teaching classes.

As he sat with one inmate, they talked about the progress being made in one of those groups, even when Nieto is not there.

"Some guys are struggling, but they're learning," the man says. "Sometimes we come to the table and we sit and we question each other about the Bible."

Another inmate tells us "we can use that with each other even when they're not around."

"Sometimes it helps just to feel not forgotten?" we ask. "Amen."

We ask another prisoner whether he thinks the Field Minister program will help change the atmosphere.

"Yeah, it sure does... because I've been in for 23 years and it's kind of slowed us down, opened my mind up, focus more straight in life. Stops violence, stops stressing. It stops a lot of stuff. It makes you focus more better."
Prison inmate
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Senior Warden Phil Sifuentes tells us he can also see a difference in some inmates, because of the work of Nieto and four other Field Ministers now assigned here.

"First and foremost, [Nieto] is among the offender population, fellowshipping, interacting, and helping to promote our mission statement - which is to promote positive change."
Phil Sifuentes, Senior Warden

Sifuentes and other prison officials believe the Field Minister program can actually help cut down on violence behind bars, as well as reduce recidivism.

"When these guys are thinking positive change, looking to develop good cognitive skills, it's a win-win. Not only for the offender, who modifies his behavior, but as well for my staff managing these offenders. The offender population is in a calm demeanor, and thus reduce the level of violence and anxiety, tension, things that might ordinarily be on an offender's psyche that might cause them to misbehave."
Phil Sifuentes, Senior Warden

Walking through the prison and seeing Nieto interact with inmates, we were also reminded that all of us can always learn - something.

And since most inmates are not serving life sentences and will be released one day, you realize they can either learn to be better criminals - or better people.

We have to remember these individuals may be out in society, they may be your neighbor, so we want them to learn good cognitive skills when they're interacting with the public.
Phil Sifuentes, Senior Warden

But through all the positive talk of growth and change, inmates like Nieto can't forget what got them locked up in the first place.

"You killed somebody?" we ask. "Yes, I did," he responds.

"Is that why you're doing what you're doing?" we ask.

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"Yeah, that plays a big factor. I want to change and help bring change to the same kind of guys that I used to mess with and bring them out of that. Where we reach these men who were lost like I was. That includes the lifers. Those who know they will never get out," Nieto explains.

We ask him how he ministers to those inmates, what he tells them.

"That God still has a purpose for them, even while they're here. God has gifted them with a gift. And it's there. We need to find it. And find their purpose in that place where God would have them. And I lived that other one. And I know [this one's] a lot better."
Rene Nieto

While the seminary is Christian, Nieto, and Warden Sifuentes says the Field Ministers also work with those of other faiths.

"No sir, we don't proselytize," Warden Sifuentes said. "We give them hope, we give them faith and we give them an objective to strive for."

"We have other faiths here and we respect those other faiths," Nieto says. "One thing I would says is that all the other faiths have a common goal. And that's to be better men. And I'll encourage them in that. All faiths have a common goal to be better people. If they're Muslim, if they're Jehovah Witness, whatever it is, I want to help them in that."

Grove Norwood, of the Heart of Texas Foundation, told us several of the program's graduates who are now working in Texas prisons are Muslim.

The foundation is currently raising money to start a similar Field Minister program for the state's women inmates at the William P. Hobby Unit in Marlin, south of Waco.

If it all works out as planned, they'll accept the first students in the fall of 2019.

FOR MORE INFORMATION:

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Our affiliate WOAI contributed to this report.

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