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Teaching Ethics in Prison


“They were completely engaged in the material. The poignancy of the stories they would tell far exceeded the material I was used to getting.” This was Lee Hardy, a philosophy professor at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., talking about his students. The students ranged in age from mid-20s to late 50s. Many came from broken homes and have experienced severe poverty and racism. All were inmates at Handlon Correctional Facility.

Students taking the three-credit course, titled “Ethics and Christian Life,” met for about four months, two hours at a time. It consisted of readings, tests, and writing assignments, just like a regular course Hardy would teach at Calvin. He heard about the program through Calvin Theological Seminary, which had been offering courses at the facility for a few years.

Hardy, who is a member of Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church, began the course with Plato’s Republic, and from there moved into the study of the Ten Commandments, the Beatitudes, and the Christian concept of vocation, to name a few topics. “I soon learned that I needed to allow more time for discussion. [My students] had things they wanted to say, and our class represented one of the few opportunities they had to speak and be heard, where people listened to them, took them seriously, and responded to their ideas and opinions.”

In an article about Hardy’s experience teaching this course, Grace Ruiter wrote that a similar program in Louisiana started in 1994 at Angola State Penitentiary. “Since the inception of the program, violence [in the Angola prison] dropped 80 %.” Hardy suspects that this is because “study and learning in a structured environment gives people a sense of direction and accomplishment.”

Teaching at Handlon also gave Hardy a firsthand look at God’s redemption. “I was privileged to witness God at work in dramatic ways, to see lives turned around. It renewed my appreciation of the power of God’s Spirit and the unpredictable ways of God’s grace.”

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