Higher Education

College program reaches captive audience

Calvin Prison Initiative offers accredited degree for inmates.

February 26, 2016
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Calvin Prison Initiative
Handlon students engage in a discussion during a class taught by Chris de Groot, a religion professor at Calvin College and co-director of the Calvin Prison Initiative. Courtesy Calvin College

(As seen on WZZM TV 13) Calvin College has a new take on prison ministry.

Calvin College, Calvin Theological Seminary and the Michigan Department of Corrections are collaborating to offer inmates in 31 prisons the chance to pursue a five-year Bachelor of Arts in Ministry Leadership at the Richard A. Handlon Correctional Facility in Ionia.

The recently accredited Calvin Prison Initiative offers courses in ministry and theology. Inmates enrolled in the program are required to complete the same liberal arts core requirements as students at Calvin College, with classes ranging from history and social sciences to philosophy, English writing and literature.

Todd Cioffi, professor of congregational and ministry studies at Calvin and co-director of the Calvin Prison Initiative, said the program runs through the fall, spring and summer semesters, and inmates take three courses per semester with classes meeting once a week.

“We have not trimmed any of the program; we have not altered the courses because they are prisoners,” said Cioffi. “We have had to adapt how we deliver courses because it is a prison, but we have all the same categories that any student at Calvin would have to meet in terms of the core requirements.”

Inmates from any of the men’s prisons in the state can apply to enroll in the program after being nominated by each prison’s warden, school principal and chaplain.

“We have asked some significant people at each prison to have input in who eventually is recommended. We felt that these three individuals would know the population well and they would know who is college-ready in these facilities,” said Cioffi. “There is always the issue of a person who has achieved a certain amount of trust within the security system.”

Upon nomination, inmates who have a high school diploma or GED equivalency can submit academic and character letters, and a personal statement about pursuing the degree. Calvin then selects approximately 20 inmates to participate in the program.

“Those accepted students are transferred to the Richard A. Handlon prison, and then the state has agreed to put on what they call a five-year hold,” said Cioffi. “These guys will not be transferred for at least five years in order that they will have the time to complete the degree.”

Although the inaugural cohort began taking classes in September 2015, the program recently received accreditation, which shows it has the “same quality and same set of experiences” in terms of classroom experience as other Calvin degrees but also tells accreditors the college and theological seminary have high standards for the initiative, according to Cioffi.

“We always wanted this to fit in our accreditation identity. Accreditation is that sort of status that tells people within higher ed in this country there is a certain standard and certain set of expectations,” said Cioffi. “This tells our accreditors that we want to remain serious as a higher ed institution and, no matter what we do, we want it to have the same quality that people have expected from us.”

The accreditation considers the Ionia campus within the Handlon facility as a permanent second location of Calvin College.

Initial work to develop the Calvin Prison Initiative began in 2010 when Calvin Theological Seminary became interested in providing seminary education in the prison setting in Michigan. Professors from the seminary visited the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, where the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary offers higher education to prisoners.

“Eventually, the seminary started offering one course a semester on Tuesday evenings and based it on the model of Angola prison,” said Cioffi. “It got to the point where it looked like it would be pretty difficult for Calvin Seminary to figure out all of the accreditation issues in offering an undergraduate degree.”

“Some of the administrators there wondered if a college in the area like Calvin College might be interested in doing this. That is when I got involved,” added Cioffi.

David Rylarsdaam, professor of historical theology at Calvin Theological Seminary, was given the task of developing a proposal outlining the entire program and how it would meet specific requirements for a Calvin College accredited degree.

The Calvin College Faculty Senate approved the proposal in February 2015, which is when Cioffi began serving as co-director of the program alongside Christiana de Groot, a professor of religion at Calvin.

Funding for the initiative is based on a 40/60 percent model, where Calvin College assumes about 40 percent of the costs in terms of tracking academic progress and registrar database entries. The remaining portion of costs, which covers directors’ salaries, textbooks and additional resources, is funded by outside donations.  

“At this point we are pursuing and have received both donations from private individuals and then we have had a few organizational gifts from different organizations,” said Cioffi. “We really didn’t want the state to pay for this, and really this is Calvin College’s opportunity to serve the state and the wider community of Michigan.”

Professors and faculty involved with the initiative are compensated based on an adjunct salary, since the courses at the Ionia facility are considered “over-load,” according to Cioffi.

“We have asked the professors here at the seminary who are willing teach in the program to teach for basically adjunct pay,” said Cioffi. “The faculty has been more than willing to give up their time.”

In 2013, the RAND Corp. released a study, Evaluating the Effectiveness of Correctional Education, which was sponsored by the Bureau of Justice Assistance to inform policymakers, educators and correctional education administrators on the correlation between education and recidivism and other outcomes.

The report indicated inmates who participated in correctional education programs had a 43 percent lower probability of recidivating than those who did not. Inmates who were in a vocational training program also had a 28 percent higher chance of securing employment after release.

“Educational opportunities that take place in a prison have a direct impact on the ethos of the prison — on the inmates but also eventually on security staff and administrators,” said Cioffi. “If an inmate has access to education, and especially higher education, and especially the amount of higher education that would result in a degree, it dramatically lowers recidivism.”

Cioffi said the opportunity for education could also lead to a reduction in the rate of violence and conflicts in the prison system, fewer tax dollars spent on criminal justice issues and courts, and safer neighborhoods and communities when inmates are released.

“Whether the viewpoint on criminals, prisoners or prisons is progressive or conservative, we really like to say that everybody kind of wins here,” said Cioffi. “We think it can enhance some of the resources that are there already and really deepen the experience.”

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