May 21, 2018 | Matt Kucinski

During Saturday's Commencement ceremony, President Michael Le Roy recognizes the students who will receive their associate's degrees.
Courtesy: Arrae Photography

On Monday, May 21, 2018, 15 inmates from Richard A. Handlon Correctional Facility (1728 Bluewater Hwy) in Ionia, Michigan, are receiving an associate’s degree from Calvin College. The students are the first in the Calvin Prison Initiative (CPI) program to earn a degree behind bars.

The program, launched in 2015, provides up to 20 inmates each year with an opportunity to begin pursuing a bachelor’s degree in ministry leadership. The partnership between Calvin College, Calvin Theological Seminary, and the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) provides inmates with their only bachelor’s-degree option behind bars in the state. The program, funded entirely by private donations and grants, seeks to improve prison culture and curb recidivism rates by equipping prisoners with an education. 

Collaborating for success

“When I did my masters, I did thesis work on how education reduces recidivism. That’s what made me actually pursue trying to get Calvin to be here at the Handlon facility,” said DeWayne Burton, warden of the Richard A. Handlon Correctional Facility.

“Those partnerships are absolutely essential, critical to our success as a department and to our ability to help create successful people,” said Heidi Washington, director of MDOC.

Students in this year’s class have taken hold of this opportunity. The class has a cumulative GPA above 3.6, has created an award-winning prison reform conference (with another one in the works), and has started a community garden—their efforts resulting in a $2,500 donation to Safe Haven Ministries.

While the practical examples of success are significant, leaders of the program see the impact being far greater, and in missional alignment with both the college and seminary.

Restoring hope, human dignity

“It fits with the mission. Like every square inch, a prison is certainly a space where God’s light needs to shine,” said Chris DeGroot, co-director of CPI. “We take with us the understanding that everyone is created in the image of God, he wants all people to flourish, and wants justice to happen. So making education possible for the least of these absolutely fits with our Christian calling.”

“This is what we believe Christ calls us to do. It’s a living illustration of our own lives. In our sin, we are without a hope, and yet God out of his abundant grace and love comes to us anyway,” said Todd Cioffi, co-director of CPI.

“There aren’t parts of creation we give up on, that’s not the God we serve,” said David Rylaarsdam, professor of historical theology at Calvin Theological Seminary. “We believe all people are made in the image of God. We believe when God’s light shines in the darkest places of life, renewal is possible.”

The Calvin Prison Initiative currently enrolls 55 students.  Inmates from any of the 30 men's prisons in the Michigan Department of Corrections system can apply to the program, and each August about 20 admitted students are transferred to Handlon. To date, more than 30 faculty members and dozens of students from Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary have served in the CPI program. A few professors from other area colleges and universities have also taught courses in the program. 

Grateful students

“This program has changed my life. It’s given me an opportunity to be the person I feel like I was always meant to be. College in prison is something that’s becoming almost non-existent. For an institution to come in here and offer a fully accredited bachelor’s degree is unbelievable.” – Dustin

“Everyone wants their humanity affirmed, nobody wants to be judged for the worst of life. We have PhD profs coming in and they’re tutoring us. Only in God’s kingdom.” – Michael

“Every person has the potential to affect, as Kuyper calls it, God or Christ’s every square inch. So we might not be able to change a lot of things, but there’s a sphere of influence that each one of us has.” – Raymond

“Calvin College coming into the Handlon campus, bringing in the CPI program, has been such a tremendous blessing in my life, one that I will be forever grateful for, one that I will be paying forward for the rest of my life.” – Dustin

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