Handlon students reach milestone

Photo+from+calvin.edu.

Photo from calvin.edu.

A year and a half ago, the first cohort of twenty students began the process of earning a bachelor’s degree in ministry leadership through Calvin College from the Handlon Correctional Facility in Ionia, MI. The Calvin Prison Initiative (CPI) is a five-year program, and these students have just received their certificate—one of three major milestones along the road to earning the B.A.

“This makes another crucial step in the process,” said president of Calvin Theological Seminary Julius Medenblik, welcoming the students and faculty to the convocation ceremony. As provost Cheryl Brandsen called their names, the students continuing their second year stepped forward and received their certificate.

After earning their certificate, the qualified second year inmates are looking forward to earning their Associate’s degree in another year and half. After that, they’ll reach the final milestone, the bachelor’s degree.

“We take these classes seriously,” said Rafael, a first year student. “We all learn at our own pace, but we are committed and we do learn.” Thirty-seven students currently hold onto this commitment, and the program begins to grow. Last year, the first convocation was held in the auditorium—this year, students and faculty had to meet in the more spacious gymnasium.

According to the staff at Handlon, as the program grows it requires more effort on their part to monitor visitors and activity around the facility. But Corey Traylor, a resident unit manager at the prison for the past eighteen years, noted how this effort has paid off.

“Misconducts have gone dramatically down. Arguments among inmates have gone down. These guys are like minded individuals and they support each other,” said Traylor. “They get incentives, and there’s positive pressure put on them now that they’re students.”

“There’s been a 180 degree turn-around in the way [the inmates] conduct themselves,” said Maurice Williams, a guard at Handlon for the past four years.

Not only has negative behavior decreased, but positive repercussions have already begun spreading from the prison and into the surrounding area. “These guys want to help. They put together a math and algebra program for local elementary students that they tutor, and they’re expanding their curriculum to include a geometry program soon,” said Williams.

René and Armondo, two second-year students enrolled in CPI, have even started growing their hair out. “We want to donate to Locks of Love,” said René. “It’ll take 2 years at least to get ten inches, and we want to wait until everybody’s hair is ready so we can all donate at the same time.”  The students are also working on decorating over five hundred cards to send out to neighborhood children for this coming Saint Patrick’s Day.

Arthur, a first year student, attributes some of the new energy to the faculty who “pump positivity” into the students whenever they teach. But it’s not just the students that benefit from the teaching at Handlon.

“It’s invigorating for the faculty,” said Elizabeth Vander Lei, Academic Dean at Calvin, who works closely with selecting professors for teaching at Handlon. “Where does our Calvin mission live out any more than it does here?”

Though CPI aims to equip inmates with degrees, the program’s influence is much larger than a certificate on paper.

“This is about helping individuals who have fallen to get back up and make a difference in society,” said Kenneth McKee, the Deputy Director of the Correctional Facilities Administration for the State of Michigan. “Behavioral issues are basically non-existent. The first year class has a GPA of 3.55, and the second year class has a 3.65. That’s impressive, and these students are dedicated.”

“[This program] is like the hand of God coming in and touching us,” said Valmarcus, a first-year student. “There is nothing more fulfilling than living out your purpose. CPI helps us live that out.”

Though they study and take tests in a different setting, students enrolled in the CPI program are proud of their Calvin College identity.

“So, what’s going on at the Knollcrest campus?” asked Arthur.