On Monday, May 9, 2022, 45 men received their bachelor’s degrees, while another 31 men were awarded associate degrees during an event dubbed by the Detroit Free Press as “a first of its kind in modern history.
Family and friends joined together with Calvin University and Calvin Theological Seminary faculty, staff, and administrators, state legislators, and staff of the Michigan Department
of Corrections to witness the first time that bachelor’s degrees were awarded behind bars in the state of Michigan. It was a grand celebration at the Handlon Correctional Facility in Ionia, Michigan, that was spared none of the pomp and circumstance of a traditional graduation ceremony.
For many of the graduates, the last time their family members heard their names read was at their sentencing. The emotions in that moment were likely disappointment, anger, sadness, shame, guilt, and regret.
But on this day, the men dressed in black caps and gowns walked one-by-one past faculty deco- rated in full academic regalia and received their diploma and a handshake from Calvin University president Michael Le Roy.
The reading of their names was symbolic. It reminded the graduates that they are more than a number. It symbolized a restored dignity.
The beautiful white tent with coverage on all sides shielded the view of 15-foot barbed-wire fencing just steps outside. The black gowns concealed the numbers that span the upper backs of the men’s blue uniforms.
These coverups were temporary, but the transformation of these 76 men is not. Their education through the Calvin Prison Initiative (CPI) program has been formative.
It all began with a single step of obedience. It has developed over the past seven years with a community committed to doing the work. It will continue to bring about reform and renewal in the hearts of these men and in the communities they serve because, in the words of John Rottman, who taught the first course at Handlon, “CPI, in my view, has always been God’s idea and God’s work.”
One step of obedience at a time
Calvin Theological Seminary faculty and students visit Louisiana State Penitentiary (also known as Angola), the largest maximum- security prison in the United States. For years, Angola was known as one of the bloodiest prisons in America until a local seminary was granted permission to teach classes within the prison walls. This is where seeds for CPI were planted.
John Rottman, professor of preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary, teaches the first non-accredited class at Handlon Correctional Facility.
The Calvin Prison Initiative program, a partnership between Calvin University, Calvin Theological Seminary, and the Michigan Department of Corrections, is formed and the first cohort of 20 men begin to pursue a bachelor’s degree at Handlon Correctional Facility.
Eric Boldiszar, a student in the first cohort, creates and facilitates a restorative justice conference from behind bars that receives national recognition from the National Association of Community and Restorative Justice. The conference inspires faculty from Hope College and Western Theological Seminary to also start a program, launched in 2021.
Students from the CPI program start to be paroled. To date, 14 students have been paroled and all 14 are gainfully employed. This leads CPI to establish a Calvin-owned house near campus for paroled CPI students who are finishing their degree on the main campus. (Note: National statistics show that education reduces recidivism by 43%.)
CPI partners with the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) to build a new school building that houses a food-tech program, classrooms, and an office for CPI. The building, a first for MDOC, has state-of-the-art features and is designed to look like an old red schoolhouse with a 100-year-old bell.
The first cohort in the CPI program completes the requirements for their bachelor’s degrees. An in-person ceremony celebrating the class of 2020 happens in 2022 (due to COVID).
CPI organizes the first consortium of colleges and universities in Michigan that either have a program in a prison, just started a program, or are planning to start a program. CPI provides resources and best practices for these schools.
CPI is awarded a $1 million grant to continue to provide and develop best practices for Michigan colleges and universities to develop or start higher education programs in prisons.
The classes of 2020, 2021, and 2022 receive associate and bachelor’s degrees in a grand celebration held on the property of Handlon Correctional Facility.
This summer, CPI is preparing teams of five to 10 graduates to transfer to other prisons and provide leadership for academic, peer mentoring, and ministry programs. The original vision of the program is now a reality.