The first round of graduates participate in a ceremony at Richard A. Handlon Correctional Facility in Ionia. Courtesy Calvin College
Fifteen prisoners have received associate degrees from Calvin College.
This degree is the halfway point for inmates at Richard A. Handlon Correctional Facility in Ionia who are working toward bachelor’s degrees in ministry leadership through the Calvin Prison Initiative.
The goal of the project is for the inmates, many of whom have life sentences, to transform their lives for the better and become leaders among the other inmates throughout the state, said Todd Cioffi, co-director of the program. That could include religious or other moral leadership, or academic leadership.
The project is meant to improve prison culture by equipping prisoners with an education, he said.
“The students we have are very eager for the education and for the opportunity to be agents of change in prison,” Cioffi said. “Change really comes best from prisoner to prisoner.”
For those with shorter sentences or those with the possibility of parole, the goal is they will become leaders and productive members of society after prison. And, the thought is that education will curb recidivism rates, which Cioffi said has shown to be true.
Cioffi said many of the prisoners want to use their education to help the next generation of people who may be in similar situations as they were at a younger age.
One of those students is Dustin Gordon, who has 10 years to go to complete a 25-year sentence.
“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,” Gordon said. “For an institution to come in here and offer a fully accredited bachelor’s degree is unbelievable.”
Though Gordon is not a Christian, Cioffi said Gordon believes he has gained education and moral formation through the program.
“He has gone from someone who hasn’t had a sense of purpose in life — now has a tremendous amount of confidence,” Cioffi said.
“He’s just one of our bright lights, to be sure. He’s just a tremendous person.”
Cioffi said another one of his students, who is in for murder and is serving a life sentence, began life in a violent household and became a violent person, but he now wants to spend the rest of his life caring for hospice patients in prison. He said the student has become a “peace-filled, caring person” since joining the program.
“It’s just remarkable to see how he’s come to that conclusion in three years, and how he allowed himself to start becoming that sort of person,” Cioffi said.
The program began three years ago, and the prison was known as a violent place, he said. Since then, he said the environment has totally transformed.
Staff noticed other prisoners, out of respect for the students, kept the environment quiet to allow them to study.
“What’s very much impressed me is how these guys really understand what they’ve lost in life, what they caused others to lose, and so they are very aware of the gift they now have,” Cioffi said.
Planning for the program began two years before it started. A group of Calvin professors went to Louisiana State Penitentiary to learn about its education program. The group was “amazed” at the “transformative impact” the program had on the inmates, he said, and they decided to start a program in Michigan.
The $500,000 program is funded completely by private and foundation donations. No money comes from Calvin or the government. The cost is roughly $7,500-$8,500 per student.
The staff includes about 15 instructors and a few administrators. The teachers, no matter their status, make adjunct pay to teach in the program, which they do on top of their regular duties. “They’re basically doing that as a way to give,” Cioffi said.
The intention is to have 100 students enrolled in the project at any time. There are 56 students in the program now and 20 will be added each year until the maximum of 100 is reached.
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.
One of the program qualifications is the inmates must be serving at least seven years, so they have time to get through the five-year program.
In the case that a student is released early, arrangements are made to complete the degree on campus.
The current class has a cumulative GPA above 3.6, has created an award-winning prison reform conference and has started a community garden — their efforts resulting in a $2,500 donation to Safe Haven Ministries.
“The sort of guys that are getting into our program — they absolutely want to give back. They want to do something to help, in any way, shape or form, to make what they’ve done a little bit better,” Cioffi said.