Calvin Prison Initiative is Force for Moral Rehabilitation

Written by Paul R. Kopenkoskey on . Posted in Local

Calvin Prison Initiative 235Todd Cioffi is co-director of the Calvin Prison Initiative.Most inmates will never see beyond their prison walls while others eventually will be released, but what they share in common is a "moral rehabilitation" infused in their lives due to a newly accredited program called the Calvin Prison Initiative (CPI).

Up to 20 prisoners a year from any of the 31 prisons in the Michigan Department of Corrections system can apply to earn a bachelor of arts degree in ministry leadership. The program is a joint venture between Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary.

Students enrolled take classes in ministry and theology as well as Calvin's liberal arts core courses.

Inmates from any of the 31 prisons in the Michigan Department of Corrections system can apply to the program, and those admitted are then transferred to the Handlon Correctional Facility in Ionia.

Todd Cioffi, Calvin College's professor of congregational and ministry studies, and Christiana de Groot, professor of religion, are CPI's co-directors.

Successful leaders

"What's needed is a moral rehabilitation in prison," said Cioffi. "These are guys who are going to be successful leaders in prison including tutoring, mentoring and hospice care within a prison. About two-thirds of the students are serving life sentences.

"We want to empower them to be agents of change in prisons."

Many inmates nationwide, including Michigan's 43,000 or so prisoners, have not graduated from high school, while others are studying to earn their general equivalency degree.

Only serious students need apply

On one level, that's what makes the CPI students all the more impressive. They meet the same entrance requirements as students "outside" of prison, said Cioffi, including character references, academic transcripts and letters of support.

"We need to know the person is serious," he said. "And they've impressed us with their commitment, passion and ability. We've had no dropouts. We have 20 students who are really flourishing in the program."

Students can enroll in three courses in the fall, three in the spring and three in the summer for a total of nine classes per calendar year. On average, they will earn their bachelor's degree in five years.

Louisiana prison set the standard

The genesis for CPI is because of the country's largest maximum-security prison of 6,000 inmates: the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, infamously known as one of the most violent prisons in America.

Since New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary began offering higher education to prisoners, violence in the prison has dropped by 80 percent.

"It feels like a low-level security prison," said Cioffi. "It really does feel like rehabilitation."

Angola currently has 30 congregations led by inmate pastors, with congregations that offer about 400 worship services and Bible studies per month.

Since 2010, John Rottman, professor of preaching at Calvin Seminary, has been taking a class of students annually to witness how the Gospel has transformed Angola.

In 2011, David Rylaarsdam, professor of historical theology at Calvin Seminary, became aware of a mounting interest for educational opportunities from inmates at Michigan's Handlon.

Ronald Feenstra, academic dean at the seminary, called the prison several times and then wrote a letter to the warden at Handlon asking if they could offer classes to inmates. Several weeks later, Feenstra and Rottman were invited to Handlon.

That invitation was possible because of Dan Heyns, who was then the head of the department of corrections. Heyns is a grandson of Garrett Heyns, who received Calvin's first Distinguished Alumni Award in 1965 for his national leadership in prison reform.

So began the Tuesday night classes run by the seminary, which generated much interest among inmates and Calvin College and Calvin Seminary faculty.

Notable conversion

A few years after those classes started, Heyns went with the president of the Calvin Seminary board and other leaders to visit Angola who witnessed its notable conversion.

After much research and committee work, Rylaarsdam wrote a proposal for what it would take to offer a full bachelor of arts degree in ministry leadership to inmates. He then approached Calvin College about accrediting the program and the college's faculty senate approved a revised proposal in February 2015.

Sixty-percent of CPI's budget is donor-driven while the remainder is absorbed by the college's staff.

All have a life calling

"Should they get out (of prison) with this degree, they will have all the resources available to them at Calvin, such as our career development center," said Cioffi. "They are marketable. Their transcripts will not say they got their degree in prison.

"Even those with life sentences have a calling of God on their lives. For those guys with life sentence, they are eager for that discernment."

"We hope our program is a real force of good," said Cioffi. "That's our prayer."
Author Information
Paul R. Kopenkoskey
Author: Paul R. KopenkoskeyWebsite:
Paul R. Kopenkoskey is a full-time freelance writer and editor for an assortment of publications including Grand Rapids Magazine, Grand Rapids Business Journal, and Faith Grand Rapids magazine. He has completed his first novel with the working title, Karl Beguiled. He and his wife, Barb, live in Wyoming, Michigan. They have three children and five grandchildren.

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