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Bachelor's behind bars: Calvin University first in Michigan to offer inmates Bachelor's degrees

Calvin University's 2021 graduation ceremony will be historic, as it will mark the first conferring of Bachelor's degrees to Calvin Prison Initiative graduates.

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — This weekend will be historic for Calvin University, as the school is preparing to host doubleheader graduation commencement ceremonies for both its 2020 and 2021 classes.

The 2020 graduating class will break through a pair of barriers: It'll be the first conferring of Calvin University degrees (the institution became a university in 2019), and it's also the state of Michigan's first conferring of Bachelor's degrees to prison inmates.

"We are extremely proud of them," said Todd Cioffi, Ph.D, director of Calvin University's Prison Initiative program. "It just shows ownership and what it means to be a servant leader really took hold for many of these men."

The Prison Initiative evolved in 2015. A partnership between Calvin University and Calvin Theological Seminary, the Calvin Prison Initiative (CPI) is a unique program that provides a Christian liberal arts education to inmates at the Richard A. Handlon Correctional Facility in Ionia, MI. This five-year program results in a bachelor of arts degree from Calvin University in Faith and Community Leadership. CPI brings hope, dignity, and the opportunity for real accomplishment. 

Due to COVID-19, the school wasn't able to have a graduation commencement, thus the reason for this year's doubleheader.

"Describing what it was like to get this program running is like building a car as you're driving it down the road," said Dr. Cioffi. "You can't stop; you can't pull over; you just figure it out."

The program has clearly figured it out, as lives are being transformed inside Handlon's prison walls.

"These guys are like dry sponges," said Dr. Cioffi. "They want something different."

One of the inmates who developed a deep desire for change was Michael Duthler, who wasted no time in signing up for the Calvin Initiative.

"I'm just so proud to be a part of that very first cohort," said Michael, 48, who had his parolable life sentence overturned a couple years ago by new state legislation that looked to de-populate prisons. "That program helped me understand my humanity through another's."

Michael was sentenced to prison on November 5, 1992, for second degree murder. He was incarcerated for 26 years before being paroled.

"Instead of being an agent of destruction, which I very much was when I was 19 years old, I am now striving every day to be an agent of renewal," Michael added. "I had a lot of years where I was hating myself for what I had done; I don't have a day where I'm not thinking about his death."

After being paroled, Michael finished up his Bachelor's degree coursework on Calvin University's Knollcrest Campus. Through an internship opportunity, he's now gainfully employed at Fresh Coast Alliance in Muskegon, which helps individuals with recovery and reentry into society after addiction and/or incarceration.

"Sometimes reality is stranger than fiction," Michael said. "Here I am helping the very person that I was."

Dr. Cioffi says Michael was one of the prison program's star pupils, and couldn't be more excited to see him graduate Saturday and navigate his life in a positive direction.

"Michael is a classic story from those who say, 'Yea, see what happens, then these guys go to prison,'" Dr. Cioffi said. "But now he's a classic story from our angle, which is, 'Give a guy a chance, and be patient, there could be a positive outcome.

"I guess as a society, we could have just ignored him forever and ever, but that would have been at our loss, frankly. For every guy that Michael can help stay out of prison, we all benefit. 

"If there were only more Michaels," Dr. Cioffi joked. "Wait, there are, and I know where they are."

As for Michael, he says he's bound and determined to live out the remainder of his life with real purpose and meaning, and he owes it Calvin University's Prison Initiative Program.

"As I flip that tassel Saturday, I will be thinking of all the people who supported me," Michael said. "I have a deep and profound gratitude to them and my almighty God for receiving this second chance in life that I don't deserve."

Calvin University's doubleheader graduation commencements will happen Saturday, May 22 at LMCU Ballpark - the home of the West Michigan Whitecaps. The 2020 commencement will start at 11:00 a.m., followed by the 2021 event at 3:30 p.m.

A special commencement event will unfold sometime this fall at Handlon Correctional Facility in Ionia, MI. for the graduates still incarcerated. Dr. Cioffi says they want people to be able to attend the graduation, but more COVID-19 restrictions need to be lifted before that can happen.

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