Two Catholic inmates among first in prison chaplaincy

Inmate Eddie Kinney receives his diploma from College at Mid-America president Dr. Michael Spradlin during his graduation ceremony May 12 at the Varner Unit of the Arkansas Department of Correction.
Inmate Eddie Kinney receives his diploma from College at Mid-America president Dr. Michael Spradlin during his graduation ceremony May 12 at the Varner Unit of the Arkansas Department of Correction.

When Catholic inmates Robert Robbins and Eddie Kinney received their bachelor’s degrees to become inmate chaplains to their fellow inmates at the Varner prison in Gould, their lives took on a greater purpose.

“To whom much is given much is expected,” Robbins said, referencing Matthew 25, “and I’ve been given this incredible opportunity. I’ve been given a free college education, and it’s not for me to just get and sit on as the third person in the parable did, but to take and to put out in the world and to get returns for my master because that’s why he gave them to me. He wants me to do something with it and show him a profit when he returns.”

Kinney added, “You just got to follow his lead and invest what he has invested in you.”

On May 12, 18 inmates at the Varner Unit graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Christian studies from the College at Mid-America in Memphis through the Arkansas Prison Initiative. Arkansas Department of Correction spokesperson Dina Tyler said it’s the first inmate chaplaincy four-year degree program offered in the state’s prison system.

“It’s the exact same degree that students at the campus in Memphis receive. It isn’t a watered-down thing —  it is the same thing. It took the same amount of hours,” Tyler said. 

Robbins and Kinney were the only Catholics to graduate from the program.

Religious conversion leads to chaplaincy classes 

The program started in August 2019, with virtual classes from Memphis and in-person classes led by Dr. Mark Thompson, director of the Arkansas Prison Initiative and professor of church history, missions and theology at Mid-America. Though Baptist-based, Robbins and Kinney said their Catholic faith was respected, and both wrote papers regarding Catholic teachings.  

To be accepted into the program, inmates had to be interviewed, have a high school diploma or GED and a clean behavior record. The program is based at Varner because it’s a maximum security prison, allowing any inmate who applies to be transferred there.

Father Phillip Reaves, diocesan director of the Prison Ministry Office, has known Robbins and Kinney for about 10 years, calling them “pillars of the Catholic community at Varner.” 

“Both have been sponsors for men going through RCIA. They are people I can rely on for anything I may need — to be a lector at Mass, get a message out to others who attend Mass, assist a person who is not familiar with Mass,” Reaves said in an email to Arkansas Catholic. “When I see something I do not understand, I go to Robbins and Kinney to explain the matter. I know their strengths and weaknesses. I trust them completely.” 

For Robbins and Kinney, saying yes to God’s call was many years in the making. Robbins converted to Catholicism in 2000 in the county jail where he first met diocesan priest Msgr. Jack Harris.

Kinney converted in 1989 at Our Lady of Fatima Church in Benton. Previously Southern Baptist, he never felt quite at home and became drawn to the early Church fathers and the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It was a natural fit. By the time of his incarceration in 1993, he had fallen away from the faith. By 2000, Kinney said Robbins started “dragging him to Mass.” 

Students took core courses and Christian studies on the Old and New Testaments, biblical counseling and Christian history. College president Dr. Michael R. Spradlin, dean Dr. Brad Thompson, family members and ADOC officials attended the graduation.

In prison experience helped to change lives 

Graduates now have an opportunity to change lives. Tyler said they are degree-certified “field ministers” or inmate chaplains under the supervision of the ADOC chaplains, allowing them to provide Bible-based counseling, Bible studies, assisting in the chapel and counseling inmates cell to cell. 

“Chaplains in the prisons are very busy addressing deaths or serious illnesses of inmates or their families, counseling, scheduling free-world services and visits by free-world ministers,” Reaves said. “The field ministers will be able to give more attention to the inmates needing attention. The field ministers will also be able to teach classes and lead worship services.”

While chaplains sometimes try to relate to inmates, bringing up missteps in their past, Robbins said it’s not the same as an inmate preaching to a fellow inmate. 

“When you can get down to the same person’s level and they understand you are in the same situation, you have found a faith that works, you have found a purpose, you have found this calling and you’ve found a way to be happy and content and have joy in your life in this place, I want that,” Robbins said. “That is not something that anyone who comes from the free world and speaks to us for an hour and a half can give us because that is something that you can only show by the fact that you’re living in the same circumstances they are and you are making it right.”

Because of their education, they can share theological insights, particularly with the roughly 20 Catholics in their unit out of about 1,700 men. Both do not have official assignments yet, but Kinney said they already share hope with others. 

“It’s people coming up sometimes and saying, ‘How can you be happy? With everything going on, how can you be happy?’ Well, it’s just we have hope. And that’s something that is sorely lacking in this place, hope. It’s not really built into the institution,” Kinney said. “We have to find it within ourselves and that’s hope that God gives us and that’s the only real hope that there is. And that’s some of the stuff we’ve learned to be able to communicate with other people.” 

Letting God guide the way

Tyler explained that any programs advancing inmates’ skills and education are beneficial but said this faith-based program can provide more peace. 

“It is very easy to say, ‘Oh these people will never change.’ Some of them won’t, but some of them will. If we don’t believe in the power of second chances and hope for change, then what do we have? Why do any of it?” she said.

As part of the first graduating class in Arkansas, moving forward as inmate chaplains requires trust. Both are relying on God to lead them. 

“I know I can’t see the future, but God does. God is preparing me for something that I can’t see yet,” Robbins said. “And I just have to keep reminding myself that, ‘Recognize what God is doing in your life right now, join him in that and let him worry about tomorrow.’”

Aprille Hanson Spivey

Aprille Hanson Spivey has contributed to Arkansas Catholic as a freelancer and associate editor since 2010. She leads the Beacon of Hope grief ministry at St. Joseph Church in Conway.

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