IONIA COUNTY, Mich. — For a few hours Monday, inside a tent decorated with maroon and gold, it was easy to forget where you were.
Among the music and the commotion and the robes and tassels, it was easy to forget that this graduation ceremony was being held inside the walls of a prison.
But to the graduates leaving with their degrees, and their families, it didn’t matter. Diplomas are the same everywhere, as is the pride that comes with it.
Though some prisoners who received their associates or bachelor’s degrees from Calvin University on Monday will never step foot beyond the walls of Handlon Correctional Facility, the Calvin Prison Initiative is a lesson in second chances as much as it is in education.
“This is a momentous occasion for all of us,” said Raymond Potts, who received his bachelor’s degree, graduating with honors on Monday. “I’ve thrown away some things took some things for granted before and now I have this opportunity. I want to do my level best at minimum with this opportunity.”
Potts was one of the first entrants into the program in 2015. Prior to that, Calvin professors had been teaching some non-accredited, non-credit-bearing courses at Handlon after seeing a similar initiative at Angola Penitentiary, a harsh maximum-security facility in Louisiana known as the “Alcatraz of the South.”
“They went down there because they were told, ‘there’s this educational program that grants degrees and it’s transforming the whole prison…you gotta see this.’ And they did. And they were blown away,” said Todd Cioffi, director of the Calvin Prison Initiative. “And the professors came back and said, what if we did this in Michigan?”
Cioffi says the program at Angola drove a drop in violence and a better relationship between inmates.
Months after that visit, Calvin professors were teaching their first credit-bearing classes inside Handlon walls. Each of the CPI graduates receive the same degree: faith and community leadership, a major custom designed for the CPI course.
Some graduates have landed jobs already after leaving Handlon, others are currently putting theirs to work inside the walls – assisting F-Block inmates who have physical, mental, or cognitive impairments, leading substance abuse and addiction courses, and presiding over religious services. It’s not just a convenience for Handlon, it’s a necessity as half their inmate population has mental health needs.
For most, their degrees will be used in prison for perpetuity – two-thirds of the CPI graduates are serving life sentences.
“This is their world, this is their community, so we want to equip them to make this the best place it can become,” said Cioffi. “This opportunity re-instills a sense of hope in these guys. And a sense of purpose and meaning even if they are going to remain incarcerated.”
For inmates who've always considered returning to education, like Willie Chappell, Jr., who said he grew up without much if a chance at one, it's redemption - a piece of paper that is so much more than just that.
“That I’m a person of great value," said Chappell. “Just being encouraged by others, I think they more saw it in me than I saw it in myself.”
Degrees take 5-years to obtain, so this was the first actual graduation ceremony with all due pomp and circumstance – COVID-19 cancelled the scheduled inaugural ceremony in 2020.
CPI is entirely donor and grant funded; there are no line-items for it in either the Calvin University or the Handlon budget. In the future, Calvin wants to establish an endowment to help the program prosper for years to come – Handlon just built a brand-new school on their grounds to house it.
Valmarcus Jones graduated Monday. He’s serving a life sentence for a 1994 homicide in Grand Rapids. His victim’s mother, Jerline Riley, was the keynote commencement speaker and throughout Jones’ education she has also been his biggest supporter.
“I don’t want him in here feeling like he’s being thrown away,” said Riley. “My son didn’t get to do this. We can’t change that, but what we can do is change the future. And we can make sure that other sons know that it’s not too late to late. Don’t give up.”
“This is a humbling experience, just given the opportunity to get back finally, just try to make things right again,” said Jones. “When we’re young we make so many different choices and decisions that you pay for dearly with your life. So just giving me a chance to give back.”