Calvin College and Seminary are considering the possibility of offering undergraduate ministry training to prisoners at Handlon Prison in Ionia, MI. The training would allow inmates to earn a Ministry Leadership undergraduate degree accredited by Calvin College.
Every year, 18-20 selected students would be transferred to the Handlon Correctional Facility in Ionia, where they would take classes in ministry and theology as well as Calvin’s liberal arts core courses. After the completion of their program, inmates would be transferred in pairs or groups to other Michigan prisons in order to provide leadership to the churches behind bars.
David Rylaarsdam, professor of historical theology at Calvin Seminary, has been working with both Calvin College and Calvin Seminary to coordinate the efforts to establish the Ministry Leadership degree.
“Studies conducted over the last two decades clearly demonstrate that higher education in prisons reduces inmate violence and lowers recidivism,” said Rylaarsdam, referring to the rate at which a person repeats criminal behavior. “New York Theological Seminary’s program in Sing Sing Prison, for example, has a recidivism rate near zero, while the New York state average is close to 50 percent.”
Nate Bradford, associate chaplain for resident life, said of the prisoners:
“For some, they’re in there for life and the degree is very much designed towards them helping disciple others behind bars. For others, it’s the chance for them to come out with a whole lot more than they went in with in terms of skills and the ability to participate in the community in a more positive way.”
For the past 20 years, Calvin Seminary students have been going to Angola Prison in Louisiana. As one of the largest maximum security prisons in the U.S., Angola used to be one of America’s bloodiest. However, according to Rylaarsdam, violence at Angola has been reduced by 80 percent in the past few years due to the influence of its seminary program.
“The spirit of the correction system for so long now has been to lock them up and throw away the key,” said Bradford. “I think that as Christians we should have more of a God’s eye on this thing and find ways to redeem lives, including those in prison.”
“Mass incarceration, violence in prisons, high recidivism rates and prison budgets are large social ills,” said Rylaarsdam. “Calvin College and Seminary have the educational resources to directly reform some of these tougher square inches of culture.”
Calvin Seminary has received a gift for the 2014-2015 school year to work on getting the program off the ground. Rylaarsdam hopes that in the future, a donor base will be established once people realize the far-reaching benefits of the program.
“I see it as a chance for inmates to come to grips with who Jesus is and who they are,” said Bradford. “It gives them the confidence to participate in that which is good and be part of the kingdom’s work.”
“Through the proposed programs, Calvin can model in a unique and vivid way what being agents of renewal looks like,” Rylaarsdam said.
Bradford also has high hopes for the partnership: “The sky is the limit in my eyes as to what this can do for the inmates, families and their communities when they get out.”