Inmates at the Handlon Correctional Facility in Ionia, Mich., can now earn a full accredited undergraduate B.A. in Ministry Leadership, thanks to the efforts of Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary.
The medium-security prison, about 30 miles from Grand Rapids, Mich., houses about 1,300 inmates. Codirectors Todd Cioffi and Christiana de Groot believe the five-year program will contribute to other programs at the facility such as building trades, welding, and dog training for special needs. “We wanted to make sure that inmates had access to a good liberal arts curriculum,” said Cioffi. “They could personally grow in a variety of ways and become tutors and mentors for other inmates as they pursue educational opportunities.”
Cioffi explained that serving God’s kingdom is not meant for only outside the prison, but that God reigns inside the prison’s walls as well. “Prisoners who will not get out of prison benefit from thinking about their general calling and serving God within a prison. For instance, one of our students who will never get out of prison, given the sentence he has, wants to work in hospice care in a prison some day.”
“We live in an environment of low expectations. This program has high expectations. It demands more of us than the system does, so that’s liberating,” said David, a student in the program. “When you are denied something for so long that you desire so badly, when an opportunity like this comes along, it’s difficult to overestimate how important something like this is.”
David is a part of the first cohort of students who began this past September taking classes through Calvin. He’s hoping to be a Calvin College alumnus in 2020.
All instruction is done at the facility in person. The faculty travels to Ionia once a week to offer a three-credit course. Students at Calvin and Calvin Seminary also travel to the prison to offer tutoring. “We believe that this is a clear Christian calling to serve prisoners, and education goes a long way in serving,” Cioffi said. “Our hope is that education, especially theological education, will transform our students, who in turn will have a positive impact on other inmates, corrections officers, and prison staff, which in turn will ripple out into the Michigan prison system.”
“We want them to know their Michigan Department of Corrections number is not what defines them,” said de Groot. “They know they’re a child of God. That’s good news! We reinforce it saying you are now a member of this learning community—that’s meant hope to them. They are very grateful.”