“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” Romans 8:28
When Burl Cain, warden of Angola Penitentiary, said, “Sit down; I want to pray for you,” Judge Tom Kohl sat down. He wasn’t sure what to expect, but even in the three days he’d spent at Angola, he had learned Warden Cain was a force to be reckoned with.
This is what Burl Cain prayed: “Dear Lord, don’t let this man rest until the Oregon Department of Corrections has a Bible college in one of its prisons.”
At the time, Judge Kohl had no idea this would be the beginning of a partnership between Corban University and the Oregon State Correctional Institution to offer a four-year degree program to Oregon inmates.
For the past three days, Judge Kohl had been touring Angola Prison (formally known as the Louisiana State Penitentiary). The largest maximum security prison in the country, Angola holds a certain fascination for a number of reasons. At 18,000 acres, it’s large enough to have its own zip code, and houses about 6,300 inmates. Farmlands on the prison grounds produce enough fruits and vegetables to feed the entire prison. The prison publishes its own magazine, operates a radio station, and even hosts its own annual rodeo, arts & crafts festival, and horse sale, which are open to the public.
But these weren’t the reasons Judge Kohl felt compelled to visit Angola. Neither was he drawn by a fascination with the prison’s dark history as one of the most violent prisons in America. Rather, he was drawn by the reformation Warden Cain had brought to the prison in the early 1990s, which had dramatically decreased violence and restored hope to inmates.
In 1995, the same year Cain became the warden of Angola, he partnered with New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary to begin offering a four-year college degree program. This did something even more important than providing education, vocational training, and spiritual development. This gave inmates hope—something that isn’t easy to come by for men who are serving life sentences with no possibility of parole.
Not only were inmates offered hope through the redemptive work of Christ, but they were also given the hope that they could still contribute to society, experience success and accomplishments, and thrive during their decades of incarceration. They began to see how, despite a life sentence, they could find ways to serve others and become productive members of society as they became mentors, led Bible studies, helped reduce gang affiliation and violence, and even became pastors for the dozens of churches within the prison walls.
One group of men, who call themselves the Malachi Dads, mentor inmates who have children in the outside world, encouraging them and helping them take an active role as fathers. Other inmates have been given responsibilities as instructors in the prison’s extensive vocational training programs, helping prepare those with shorter sentences for re-entry into the free world.
At one point, Warden Cain came up against an unusual problem—he had too many inmates who were pastors. He began to transfer them to other prisons in the state of Louisiana. Graduates were sent out like missionaries to be spiritual leaders in the Louisiana prison system.
In the years following the introduction of the seminary and other reforms, violence at Angola has dropped dramatically. While some would attribute the change to the implementation of “moral rehabilitation,” Judge Kohl knew it went deeper than that: it was the redemptive work of Christ.
Judge Kohl had many reasons for his interest in the power of Christ to heal and restore men who were incarcerated. Not only had he served as a sitting judge for Washington County in Oregon for 19 years, but his family had been devastated by a violent crime when Judge Kohl’s daughter Megan was brutally murdered in 2006.
At the time, Judge Kohl was so overwhelmed by feelings of sorrow, remorse, despair, and helplessness that “there was no room in my heart for anger or hatred at the person who had committed this crime.” It would be a year before he learned the name of his daughter’s killer, but by the time Robert was identified and arrested, Judge Kohl had already forgiven him.
When he was called to testify against Robert in court, Judge Kohl shared with the jury who Megan was—how she had always felt drawn to the least, the last, and the lonely, and how this compassion had led her into unhealthy situations, including an addiction to methamphetamine. He also shared how her death had devastated his family, and then he told Robert that it was only through the power and presence of Jesus Christ in his life that he was able to forgive him.
A year and a half later, God began to take Judge Kohl on a journey that would transform his pain and grief into an opportunity to help heal and restore the lives of others. On July 21, 2010, the fourth anniversary of Megan’s death, he began writing a book about his experience as a parent in grief, called Losing Megan.
At first, Judge Kohl felt called to minister to other hurting parents—parents whose sons and daughters had struggled with drug abuse, been drawn into the wrong circles by their desire to rescue others, or who had been killed in the aftermath of drug and alcohol abuse.
“I thought I was writing the book to help parents cope with the loss of a child; God had other plans.” Judge Kohl soon realized that his message wasn’t just parents who were grieving—it was for people in prison who needed to hear his message of forgiveness—beginning with Robert.
On April 21, 2011, the day before Good Friday, Judge Kohl sat in a small conference room in Two Rivers Correctional Institution in Umatilla, across from the man who had killed his daughter. It was the first time he had ever set foot in a prison.
“We couldn’t talk about the case, because Robert was appealing the jury decision, but we could talk about family, and other things.” What began as a painstaking, awkward conversation ended with Judge Kohl sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ. Judge Kohl went home and wrote the final chapter of his book: “Forgiveness.”
Slowly, Losing Megan began to open more and more doors for Judge Kohl to share about his experiences. He found himself traveling to prisons around the country, speaking to inmates about grief, forgiveness, and Jesus Christ.
But God had even bigger plans for Judge Kohl.
One Sunday in 2013, his wife Julie was away with friends at the beach, and Judge Kohl decided to check out a different church. They were going through Henry Blackaby’s Experiencing God, one of the same books Burl Cain had begun implementing in the curriculum at Angola. Toward the end of the church service, they showed a clip from a documentary about the transformation that had happened at Angola Prison. Judge Kohl was fascinated. “I felt God calling to me, speaking to me to go to Angola.”
The next day, he called Warden Cain and left a voicemail. At the time, he couldn’t have imagined the words Warden Cain would pray over him during his second visit to Angola in June 2014: “Dear Lord, don’t let this man rest until the Oregon Department of Corrections has a Bible college in one of its prisons.”
Judge Kohl had seen for himself the restoration and hope that flooded one of the prisons with the darkest history in America. What could happen, he wondered, if Oregon could implement a similar program in one of its 14 correctional institutions?
Upon his return to Oregon, he began to reach out to Oregon officials, including the Director of the Oregon Department of Corrections, Colette Peters. She was intrigued by Judge Kohl’s idea of partnering with a Christian university to provide a four-year degree to inmates, and she agreed to send a representative to Angola to learn more.
In January 2015, Judge Kohl made yet another pilgrimage to Angola, this time with 12 people in tow, including two state senators, two state representatives, local pastor James Gleason (head pastor of Sonrise Church in Hillsboro), and a representative of the Oregon Attorney General. “Everyone thought they were going to prison—but they were also going to church,” Judge Kohl says with a smile.
Seeing the transformation that had taken place in Angola, the Department of Corrections (DOC) was all in. Even as a secular institution, they had seen the power of introducing biblically-centered education into prisons and how it could affect prison morale and culture (in addition to potentially cutting the recidivism rate in half!). After Louisiana had brought a seminary into one of its prisons, several other states had followed suit, including Texas, Georgia, North Carolina, and Michigan. Now Oregon, one of the least-churched states in the nation, was contemplating letting a Bible college into one of its prisons.
The only question was “Which one?”
Before this journey had begun, Judge Kohl had hardly heard of Corban University. But James Gleason, the pastor who had joined him on the trip to Angola, was a Corban alumni, and he was also in the process of becoming a board member for Corban. In addition, Judge Kohl learned that Corban University was in close proximity to not one but three prisons—literally across the road from Santiam Correctional Institution, and a stone’s throw from the Oregon State Correctional Institution. Dr. Sheldon C. Nord, the president of Corban, agreed to meet with Judge Kohl, and slowly the pieces began to fall into place.
The Department of Corrections agreed to provide the space for classrooms at the Oregon State Correctional Institution (OSCI). Corban University agreed to provide accreditation for the four-year degree program, as well as faculty to teach the courses. But one piece was still missing: the funds to remodel the 2,700 square foot classroom space (estimated at $450,000), in addition to expenses such as faculty stipends and the salary for a full-time program director. Thus, Judge Kohl founded Paid in Full Oregon, a nonprofit fundraising organization: the lynchpin that would hold the Corban-OSCI partnership together.
Fundraising has been going so well that the first cohort of 25 men will begin classes in the fall of 2019. Of the $450,000 needed for the classroom remodel (think: a new sprinkler system, two new restrooms, upgrades to meet electrical and plumbing codes, and eliminating asbestos under the carpets), approximately $368,000 had been raised. According to Judge Kohl, God has clearly been behind Paid in Full’s fundraising success. “I had no idea what I was doing!” he laughs. “I’m a judge—I’m not an executive director.” But despite the fact that he’d never conducted a fundraising effort on this scale before, the money kept coming in.
Renovations are projected to be completed by August 15. Meanwhile 25 men will be carefully selected from throughout Oregon’s prison system. In order to be accepted to the program, they’ll have to meet three key requirements: They must have a high school diploma or GED, they must have a year’s clean disciplinary record, and they must have at least 8 years left on their sentence. Men who are accepted will earn a Bachelor of Science in Liberal Arts with emphases in leadership and mentorship. This degree will comprise about 30 credits of theology, 30 credits of psychology, and 60-80 credits of science, math and history. Curriculum will be finalized when the new Program Director (yet to be identified) comes on board this summer.
Judge Kohl anticipates several challenges awaiting men who are accepted to the program, including pushback from their fellow inmates. “Their fellow inmates are going to think they’re special. They’re going to do whatever then can to sabotage their time in the program.” He explains that other states have experienced this same problem, and that they’ll do their best to prepare men for the pushback.
“That’s why Cliff Jones is on our board,” Judge Kohl adds. Cliff Jones was serving a life sentence in Angola when the seminary program was introduced by Burl Cain. “Before Jesus, Clifford was on the streets of New Orleans, committing cries and dealing drugs,” Judge Kohl explains. After becoming a believer and graduating from the first seminary cohort in 1999, Jones began leading Bible studies and mentoring and counseling other men. In 2006, he was miraculously released, and ended up becoming associate pastor for a church in New Orleans. He recently moved to Oregon to take a position in Prison Ministry for Sonrise Church, and he’ll be assisting with the Paid in Full program. “Clifford will be talking to the men,” Kohl says, preparing them for the pressures and negative reactions they’ll experience. “He’ll have instant credibility with the men in the first class.”
Not only that, but Cliff Jones is a living example of the kind of transformation that can take place in the lives of inmates. “We’ll have stories like that here in Oregon too,” Kohl says.
Judge Kohl can’t help but wonder what would happen if Robert were to apply and be accepted to Corban’s degree program at OSCI. He didn’t come to the Lord that day Judge Kohl shared the gospel with him in Umatilla, and they haven’t seen each other in person since, but “maybe one of these days he’ll come to know Jesus Christ,” Judge Kohl says, and bring one small piece of the story full-circle.
In addition to serving as the founder and director of Paid in Full, Judge Kohl is currently serving on the board of Global Prison Seminaries Foundation, whose goal is to put a Bible college in a prison in every state.