April 06, 2023 | Matt Kucinski

Two male students in the Calvin Prison Initiative program smiling with arms around each other.
James Hammett (left) and Ken Coatsworth (right) reunited in 2020 at Handlon Correctional Facility in Ionia, Michigan through the Calvin Prison Initiative program. Courtesy: Deborah Hoag Photography

In August 2020, Ken Coatsworth took a 90-minute bus ride from Lakeland Correctional Facility in Coldwater to Handlon Correctional Facility in Ionia.

“My first day there, this guy shows up at my door,” said Coatsworth with a smile, referring to James Hammett who is seated next to him. “He was like ‘hey man, what’s up, remember me?’”

While Coatsworth recognized Hammett’s face, he forgot his name.

“When I saw that they posted the names of the new students in the sixth cohort of the Calvin Prison Initiative (CPI) program, and his was on it, I was blown away,” said Hammett.

It's because Hammett, a member of CPI’s fourth cohort, had been remembering Coatsworth in his prayers every night for the past decade. “I would always go to the Lord in prayer for Ken,” said Hammett, asking that “God would bless him and help him figure out his walk.”

Coatsworth and Hammett are both students in the CPI program. Where they are now is a far cry from where they were when their paths first crossed more than a decade earlier in Jackson County Jail.

Sentenced to the same fate

In July 2010, both Coatsworth and Hammett committed home invasions and serious assaults. While unrelated incidents, they were sentenced to the same fate—20-40 years behind bars.

This reality brought Hammett immediately to his knees.

“I cried out to God, telling him ‘I want to do something different with my life,’” said Hammett, as he laid on the floor of a holding area of the county jail. “I gave my life over to God.”

He was then moved upstairs, where he met Coatsworth.

“Prison is a warehouse of grief, you’re struggling with the loss of freedom, family, friends, connections, struggling with the decisions you’ve made, the harm it has caused other people. So, when you come into prison, there’s this loneliness that consumes your heart and you live and wallow in this grief and misery. It becomes the way you see everything,” said Hammett. “When I came to jail, I longed to have someone to express these things to, and that started with Ken. We had a similar story and background, and we were experiencing the same emotions, leaning on each other to get through darkness.”

“He’d sit on his bunk waiting for me to wake up so we could read the Bible,” said Coatsworth. “My heart wasn’t there yet.”

But Coatsworth would sit with Hammett, and seeds were planted.

Transfers, trials, and transformation

The two would soon be transferred out to different facilities, with paths that looked quite different. For Hammett, he’d get training for ministerial leadership through the urban ministry institute TUMI, and he sought out fellow Christians to find community. His path wasn’t without major bumps and tragedies, but it was clearly on an upward trajectory.

For Coatsworth, he describes his journey as a “downward spiral.”

After spending six months in a pit for using and selling drugs, his substance abuse issues inside prison eventually cost him his visits for a year. “I had to call my son and tell him he couldn’t come visit,” said Coatsworth. “His first response was ‘dang dad, I can’t see you because you were bad?’ That cut me deep.”

It led him to further abusing drugs and alcohol. He admits he was probably trying to kill himself. “I was unhappy, miserable, hated God, believed in Him, but hated His people. I had a lot to drink one night and a lot of drugs and went to sleep,” recalls Coatsworth.

The next morning was February 16, 2016.

“I turned my TV on, and I was flipping through the channels, and I ended up getting stuck on TBN (Trinity Broadcasting Network), and my channels wouldn’t change, up or down wasn’t working anymore, volume buttons didn’t work. I didn’t try the power button or unplugging my TV, but I truly believed if I would have unplugged my TV it would have stayed on,” said Coatsworth. “But it was Joel Osteen of all people preaching, and I was angry, and I called God every name under the sun you could think of that was derogatory and hateful … I was so mad I was sweating, and he said something about the love of God, I can’t remember exactly what it was, but it was just how much God loves you, and it calmed my spirit, and it was the strangest thing I had ever experienced in my life because I had never felt complete rage, hate, and anger [turn] to a peace.”

Coatsworth sat back and listened to the message, and “I handed my life over to Christ.”

Headed in a new direction

His path changed. God took away his drug and alcohol addiction, and Coatsworth soon started to seek out elders in the faith inside prison walls.

While Coatsworth and Hammett were finding pockets of community among Christians, the realities of the darkness of prison were ever-reminding.

“Almost everyone in prison is pitted against one another, and it’s either because it’s a power struggle, that one person is trying to show their stronger, or better, or smarter than the next individual, or it’s because we’ve got these different groups in here who are pitting themselves against other people, or we have administration, so there’s this great divide, this chasm of chaos that goes on in prison, there’s no unity, there’s no community,” said Coatsworth.

Seeing a new vision

But Hammett and Coatsworth have seen a glimpse of what could be. In 2018, Hammett applied and was accepted into the Calvin Prison Initiative program, and two years later, Coatsworth transferred in.

“When I first got here, and I was able to meet Professor Cioffi and Kary Bosma, and Christina Haven. The love that they showed was completely different than [what I had received] from any superior in administration or officers that it blew my mind,” said Coatsworth. “I actually felt like a human being … It opened up a whole new perception of what community really is … We are all family, they don’t look at us as inmates or prisoners, they look at us as their brothers and we look at them as our brothers and our sisters. Not only are they teaching us, but they tell us we are teaching them as well. Everyone shares wisdom and shares knowledge, and we grow together.”

“The humanity Calvin poured into me has given me inspiration to help other people who I would consider the least of these,” said Hammett. “Jesus had heart for what he considered the least of these, help those marginalized and outcasts in society. Calvin has given me keys to the future.”

Doing good now

And Coatsworth and Hammett aren’t waiting for their sentence to end to use those keys. They are committed to unlocking a brighter vision for their peers inside prison.

“I don’t know how it started, but during COVID, Tony Kerr and Mark Urban (now two CPI graduates), were praying on the yard and James and I joined them, and it turned into four of us preaching to eight people, then 15, then 34 on the yard because we couldn’t have services. Every night it would rotate, and we would give 15–20-minute sermons.”

Then Easter came around and James and Ken decided to feed the unit. This came at a cost … the men joined with others in the CPI community and pooled together $1,000 to feed 240 inmates, they’d do the same the following Christmas.

“The stories we’ve heard from nonbelievers, posting notes on the microwave saying ‘we appreciate you, we’ve seen nothing like this before,’” recalls Coatsworth, who said inside prison, outside the Christian body, if you help someone else, ‘there’s always a cost.’

“You see in Acts 2 the body of believers sold everything they had to make sure everyone was on equal ground. Everyone can rely on one another, we see that in the body of Christ here at Handlon,” added Coatsworth.

Restored identity, reimagined community

A new reality of what community can look like is slowly but surely forming inside Handlon.

“It blows my mind, even to this day, three years later, it’s just amazing how much of a human being we can feel like here just in Calvin,” said Coatsworth. “It’s a drop of humanity that lets us know that we are not what people say we are, what we’ve been labeled as, and I think that’s a community, community doesn’t talk down, doesn’t let you know what other people think of you, it lets you know what you can be. They see it in you.”

“This has been the greatest experience of my entire life, crazy enough it happened in prison,” said Hammett.

And their work won’t end with their sentences.

“Men here are hopeless, don’t have a vision, constantly being talked down to, I want to help other men know they are worth something and can play an integral role in their family,” said Coatsworth, who intends on being a chaplain to prisoners after his release. “I would have never thought about coming back into prison to work, I’ve spent a majority of my life here already, but I want to come back as a chaplain and to hopefully do that through CPI. Who does that? Christians do.”

Because Jesus did. “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’” (Matthew 25:35-36)

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