From Retribution to Rehabilitation

The Calvin Prison Initiative (CPI) is growing and now going into its fourth year. At the moment, 15 students are expected to be announced as the first graduating class of the program next year, but there are already over 50 students in the program and more incoming. These students are working towards their B.A. in ministry, and the current average GPA is 3.6.

This program has experienced “nothing but positive growth,” according to professor Todd Cioffi, co-director of the CPI. This growth is creating challenges for the program as they continue to reach new heights that they never anticipated reaching. According to faculty, although this is a problem, it is a beautiful problem to have, because the program is still expanding. They have a need for more volunteers to contribute in any way possible.

According to Cioffi, the most desireable volunteers are Calvin students. These students tutor these prisoners in their studies, but also in other aspects of their life, including resume building and interview etiquette. This has had a huge impact on not just the prisoners, but the environment of the prison as a whole.

Because of the work of the CPI, the corrections facility and the prison administration have been inspired to offer more opportunities to prisoners in order to help them maintain purpose in life. According to facility staff, the purpose of imprisonment is starting to look more like rehabilitation than retribution. They are now attempting to provide more services that would help these prisoners regain a life through providing education in plumbing, carpenting and other services.

This has improved the atmosphere of the prisoners to a great extent. Fellow prisoners are aware of those who are participating in the initiative, and they have come to respect them. Oftentimes in these prisons there is a distinct culture of hate, but due to the work of the initiative, it is starting to become a culture of love.

Cioffi stressed that when Calvin volunteers come in, they have a profound impact. By just their mere presence they “humanize the prisoners” and give them a sense of meaning, said professor Cioffi. These volunteers enter into the prison, form genuine relationships with the prisoners and invest in their lives. This in turn creates a loving atmosphere inside the prison.  

Dale Cooper, a former Calvin chaplain who has been around Calvin for roughly 40 years, has worked with the prisoners. Because of the loving and genuine atmosphere, he feels as if “they’re the teachers, and I’m the pupil.” Although he is there to tutor and help them grow, the prisoners also give him a new sense of perspective and joy because of how people from different backgrounds are able to commune together. Through this shift in the culture, the prisoners now have a new understanding of grace and are preparing themselves to go out and minister, leading other prisoners to change their hearts as well.

One of the prisoners in the CPI was serving a life sentence, but after 26 years he was up for parole. He was in his third year in the program and had earned his associate’s degree. Shortly after, he was granted parole. Although this was a great step in the right direction for him, he was unable to complete the program, since it is a five-year program. Because of his determination and the CPI’s commitment, he is now enrolled here at Calvin College for the fall semester and is majoring in social work with minor in ministry. He has now fully reentered society and is in a completely new world from when he was first sent to prison.

Adjusting to this new life is challenging. Professor Cioffi likened it to “an immigrant coming into the country who can’t speak the language.” Due to this daunting adjustment, the CPI feels that local churches are uniquely qualified to provide assistance to this man and others like him.

“This is Calvin College at its best,” said Cooper. He went on to say that this young man has a chance to completely change not only his life, but the life of other prisoners because of the work of the Calvin Prison Initiative. This program is growing and will continue to grow with the help of more students and volunteers.

If you are interested in joining this program, email the program manager, Kary Bosma, at [email protected].