CPI offers affirmation of humanity in the midst of serious obstacles

While some tout achievements as a means to measure self-worth, Calvin University’s mission is to enlarge its community and the scope of that community’s vocation. In doing so, the faculty of the Calvin Prison Initiative (CPI) measure success by the engagement of its students, not basing success on individual acumen but rather on how individuals elevate their micro and macro communities.

It is this very reason, after having been accepted into CPI, that I feel deep respect for the CPI faculty. Having been incarcerated for 25 years, I had become jaded regarding humanity—I was very egocentric. As a first-year student of the seventh cohort, I sat back and observed, taking in what the upper class students were experiencing. I was in utter culture shock! I watched as Dr. Cioffi, Ms. Bosma, and Mrs. Haven became personally invested in each student’s growth and development. Further, during convocation and graduation ceremonies, I watched the sheer joy that the students were experiencing. At the time, I could not quite figure out why or what transformed these men, but I would soon find out.

For this particular article I posed a specific question to CPI students: “How has Calvin’s Mission been performed through CPI?” Hank Jones, class of ’23, talked about character formation. “Those two words have been integral in my CPI journey. Through courses that teach empathy, compassion, forgiveness … CPI has taught me that I have something to offer this broken world.” Hank is not merely talking about behavior modification but transforming how he interacts within a community that is advancing the kingdom of God.

Kyle Boldrey, the youngest CPI student at 31 and a member of the class of ’26, explains how “[CPI Faculty] speak to us as people, not at us like we are something less. When I had my first academic advisory meeting with Mrs. Haven, I asked why they did this. Mrs. Haven’s response was ‘Because it is the right thing to do.’” Doing the right thing is not always easily navigated, especially when the facilities’ administration can become an obstacle.

Another student, McConnell Adams Jr., class of ’26, appreciates the “rigor of CPI engaging classes and deep-diving assignments.” Adams further explains how these classes sparked discussions. “Conversations which aren’t supposed to happen within these fences … are now occurring daily, in and outside of the classrooms.” The culture is changing, and the CPI students are thoroughly engaged in being agents of change. Concerning corporate change, Waddell Fisher, class of ’26 and one of the eldest students of CPI, says this: “CPI provides fertile ground from which we as incarcerated students can glean ripe spiritual and academic fruit — fruit that is vital in providing what we need to fulfill our vocation as effective agents of renewal in this community and beyond.”

This is in stark contrast to the culture that the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) creates. Gregory Mox, class of ’26, states that “prison poisons people. Isolation, dubious company, idleness, pitiful conditions … breathes a toxic culture into every cell. CPI defies this trend, even when it is far from easy, CPI pursues God’s agenda.”

CPI is having an effective impact on the lives of the men who have injured society in some way and are searching for ways to mend that fracture.“When I think of CPI and [its] mission,” JaMal Sam, class of ’26, says, “the first word that comes to mind is incentive. For this reason, prison can be a very discouraging environment with an immense amount of negative influences. Moreover, treachery seems to always outweigh any reward for ‘staying out of trouble.’ Therefore, it is very enticing to throw caution to the wind and become a hopeless, institutionalized individual. CPI has changed that stigma! For instance, offering an education that will equip us with the tools to impact communities in a positive way gives men like myself the hopeful direction and internal satisfaction to thrive with meaning, instead of wandering without.” Sam’s statement demonstrates how CPI has provided its students with the means to flourish and advance the kingdom of God now.

In order to gauge the effect of CPI in the larger community, I asked an inmate who is not affiliated with CPI the same question: “How has Calvin’s mission been performed through CPI?” His response was this: “Since arriving at [the Handlon Correctional Facility], I have observed how Calvin’s involvement with inmates has in a sense brought the dead to life. Calvin seems to provide not only an education but also a new way of thinking that brings forth a real hope for the future, impacting not just the inmate but society as a whole.” Of course, this is a small sample of opinions, yet it is still very tangible evidence of the investment CPI has committed to restore hope.

Hope is a stranger to many incarcerated individuals within prison and even when acclimating back into society. CPI is the instrument that imbues individuals with this healthy perspective. And while we are seeing evidence in a microcosm, imagine if this type of hope was introduced on a grander scale. Sometimes our vision is limited because of those around us chirping words of doubt and only seeing us as the crimes we committed and not as people who feel anguish for their actions. However, if we transcend our environment and fill one another with hope, we can accomplish all things.

There are some setbacks, times where we CPI students have not toed the line, giving the administration excuses to blame the progressive educational techniques introduced into the MDOC by Calvin University. However, this is an unjust accusation, where the only blame is on the individuals who have not allowed new ethical and moral standards to take root in their lives. Admittedly, we are lacking in holding one another more accountable and setting a better standard for the future of CPI. Moreover, for us to give any excuse for our violations only adds to the oppressive atmosphere, filling pockets with injustice. Conversely, when CPI students are equipped to mitigate injustice, but our voices are unrequited, we are able to share in the frustration of the CPI faculty. As CPI students, we look at how Calvin navigates injustice, but when we are seen only as prisoners by the administration of the MDOC, we are told that we have forfeited our right to speak of justice. Therefore, while we are being equipped to enlarge our spheres of influence for just causes, our growth is met with strong opposition. This severely strains the cultivating of healthier relationships in the prison.

In conclusion, even though the MDOC and the leaders in Lansing like to tout programs — even heralding the CPI program as one of the best stories of 2022 — we have to remember that every glowing remark casts a shadow in the eyes of those who oppose humanity’s redemption. CPI has advanced the cause of letting light permeate the shadowy obstacles. As a result, true fruit is being nourished and ripened. We, the CPI students, want to thank the Knollcrest campus for allowing our voice to be heard.

We wish to leave you with a couple of quotes:

“CPI at Handlon is a mountain to climb with every tool you need to succeed, every reason to try, and all the breath-taking moments to share.” — JaMal Sam ‘26

“Perfection in a moment is what breathes up dreams of created beings. Dashed with thoughts of freedom is what fractures that very dream.” — Robert Edward Hine ‘26