A letter: Calvin Prison Initiative


Photo from calvin.edu.

I have a friend who once said, “Prosperity doth best discover vice, but adversity doth best discover virtue.”

Okay, it wasn’t a friend so much as Sir Francis Bacon who said that. The truth of the statement remains true regardless of who said it. If there is one place where one could expect plenty of adversity, it is in prison. If Bacon is right, then there should be some virtue as well. The problem is, this is the one place virtue — thinking and acting for others — is frowned upon. I have found the most horrible thing about being in prison, since I became a Christian, is the recognition of the need to be virtuous and the inability to freely practice virtue. Traditionally, prison frowns on virtue. From the administration all the way down to the other prisoners, virtue is countercultural and, therefore, a sin to them.

As a rule, the administration of a prison requires a certain pessimistic worldview. If you start seeing your charges as people who may wish to behave altruistically or philanthropically it becomes more difficult to apply the kind of across-the-board treatment that any institution demands for orderly and cost-efficient operation. I understand that. I have been locked up for almost 27 years. I have seen, over and over again, how the majority of the people locked up behave. How much of that behavior prison breeds, by its nature, is in direct response to the hopelessness and feelings of uselessness, I cannot say. I can say that, generally, prison administration crushes any attempt at virtue, quickly and ruthlessly, lest some violation of policy occur.

Consider for a moment the steps necessary for the free practice of virtue in your life. It is probably fairly simple, right? You decide to start a food drive, you go about collecting food and you deliver food to a food bank. Here at Handlon we have to receive permission to involve ourselves in any charitable activity. There are even rules against providing items to other prisoners, at least that was how it has traditionally been in prison. A new era has come to the Department of Corrections with Warden Burton and the CPI program.

The administration here at Handlon, led by Warden Burton, has begun to reshape the pessimistic worldview that has informed the way prisons have been run. The warden has begun to actively encourage virtuous behavior in the men under his authority. The first class of CPI students has been chosen by the warden to begin acting as mentors and tutors for other prisoners. The first group of men we are going to assist are those chosen to take part in the Jackson Community College Pell grant program.

Under the leadership of CPI students Ryan Nichols and Dustin Gordon, the first cohort will begin college prep classes geared towards optimizing the chances of success for the incoming college students. Ryan and Dustin have already run college prep classes both here at Handlon and at another facility, called Lakeland. They ran prep classes for the second cohort this summer; Ryan taught study skills and Dustin taught grammar. An admirable accomplishment, but that was for only 20 men. Now they are being called upon to build a program that will prepare 200 men for their first college courses.

Warden Burton has expressed his confidence in the CPI students and their ability to serve their community in this fashion. Speaking for myself, his confidence is heartening. He has already chosen two other students to begin training for a “Peer Mentorship” program and has together programs in the works, including many with the Prison Fellowship organization to help the general population prisoners.

The CPI program has given me a great gift, and with that gift comes the awareness of my own responsibility to improve the lives of those around me. As a student and as a man who wishes to serve God in all things, I feel as though I am not doing enough to make my square inch of God’s world a better place. I think Dante put it wonderfully: “Consider your origins, you were not made that you might live as brutes, but so as to follow virtue and knowledge.” Calvin College has given me an opportunity to follow knowledge. I pray that God will always give me the strength to follow virtue.

We here at the Handlon campus of Calvin will continue to seek ways in which to practice virtue and to improve the lives of our fellow prisoners. We appreciate the example set by our Knollcrest [Grand Rapids campus] classmates and everyone involved with the CPI. It is our intention to prove our gratitude; for though we are saved through faith alone we know that our works prove our faith. In faith, we will serve in whatever capacity the administration requires of us, believing that in this way we will increase shalom within these fences and, with God’s help, into the community outside.


Shawn England was one of the first 20 inmates to be brought into the CPI. He is now a sophomore in the five-year program run through Calvin. He entered prison at the age of 18, has been there for 27 years and will probably be in prison for life. He does not let this stop him from making a difference, however. About four years ago he converted to Christianity, and he is now involved in many programs that work for change and progress within the prison. He is one of two cohorts chosen by warden Burton of the first 20 students of the CPI.

Shawn is an exceptional student with a 4.0 GPA. He is a leader in his environment, active not only in CPI but in the dog training program at Handlon as a handler for Seeing Eye dogs. In addition to that, he is involved in a violence prevention program, Peer Membership, which features discussions and alternatives to using violence. The goal is to change the thinking of those involved to turn away from violence, and find new ways of dealing with life’s problems.

“[Shawn] is very determined,” said Todd Cioffi, who is involved in the CPI program. “He’s a go-getter. He wants to do something.” Shawn has expressed to Cioffi, “I am tired of being thought of as a convict. I want to be seen as a person.” Shawn is not the only one so active and passionate in the CPI. There are many inmates who are excited for the opportunities that Calvin offers with this program. To learn more about the Calvin Prison Initiative, there are more articles that can be found on Calvin’s website.