In 2005, Calvin Theological Seminary (CTS) was given funds to take students on a visit to the Louisiana State Penitentiary (also known as Angola), the largest maximum security prison in the United States. Twenty years ago, Angola was known as one of the bloodiest prisons in America. When Burl Cain became the prison’s warden, he knew something had to change. In an attempt to reduce violence in Angola, a local seminary was granted permission to teach classes within the prison walls. Since its installation, this educational program has reduced rates of violence by an astounding 80 percent.
The impressive success of educational programs at Angola quickly inspired Calvin Theological Seminary to get involved within the Michigan prison system. Around the same time, the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) had noticed the transformative work occurring in Angola and other places like it. During the early stages of interest, God provided a connection between the MDOC and CTS: Dan Heyns.
Dan Heyns, who was the director of MDOC at the time, was the grandson of Garrett Heyns, the first recipient of Calvin College’s Distinguished Alumni Award. This unexpected family connection pulled the doors of the Michigan prison system wide open and allowed CTS to begin offering a few unaccredited seminary courses at Handlon Correctional Facility in Ionia, Michigan.
A growing mission
After several years of offering these courses, Calvin Theological Seminary wanted to begin a fully accredited college degree program for these men behind bars. In order to get an undergraduate program off the ground, several key pieces had to fall in place: accreditation from Calvin College, written grant proposals, connections with donors, and established relationships with the leaders of the MDOC and Handlon Correctional Facility.
Once these pieces came together, a fully accredited college program was offered, and the Calvin Prison Initiative (CPI) was born.
The Calvin Prison Initiative began in the fall of 2015 with its first cohort of 20 students. Each school year, CPI accepts 20 male inmates from various Michigan state prison to its program. Men who are interested in CPI apply to the program and, if accepted, are transferred to the Handlon Correctional Facility.
Students in the CPI program typically take eight to nine courses each school year. Because CPI is accredited through Calvin College, their coursework contains a full liberal arts core. Students take courses in a variety of disciplines such as English, Psychology, History, Social Work and others. The bulk of classes focus on the disciplines of Religion and Ministry Leadership. By the end of five years, students will earn a BA degree in Ministry Leadership.
A program with purpose
By giving inmates educational opportunities, CPI hopes to help reform and reshape prison culture. Studies show that prison education programs significantly lower rates of inmate violence and reduce the likelihood of recidivism once an individual is released from prison. In CPI’s first year, 100 percent of student inmates passed every course with a class grade point average (GPA) of 3.6. These numbers are promising. CPI hopes this educational success will lower rates of inmate violence and recidivism at Handlon.
Uniting hearts and minds
But CPI is more than an educational program. Because of its religious values, CPI focuses on character development and moral rehabilitation. Rather than simply increasing intellectual knowledge, CPI desires to change the hearts of prisoners.
The efforts of CPI are primarily intended to benefit and rehabilitate the lives of inmates; however, the impact of CPI reaches beyond the inmates it serves. Faculty from several colleges in West Michigan serve as professors in the program, and students from Calvin College are given the unique opportunity to tutor the inmates. Those who have witnessed the CPI program in action and participated in its transformative work have walked away changed.
We believe each person is created in the image of God. We believe all people, regardless of their worst crime, deserve dignity and respect. By providing our students with an excellent education and significant opportunities, we affirm their identity and value as human beings and fellow image bearers.
We believe God is redeeming even the darkest places of society. There is no corner of creation that cannot be touched by the power of the gospel. By attempting to transform prison culture, we hope to not only restore peace and shalom within prisons, but also within our local neighborhoods and communities.
We believe all people are called to be agents of renewal in God’s world. This calling can take many shapes and forms, but for CPI, we believe we are called to seek restorative justice and the rehabilitation of inmates within Michigan state prisons. Through our program, we hope to challenge and inspire graduated inmates to act as agents of renewal in their communities both inside and outside of the prison walls.