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Calvin University students remain locked in while locked up, despite COVID-19 restrictions

Calvin University professors can't enter Handlon Correctional Facility, due to the COVID-19 restrictions, so the inmates are stepping up to teach.

IONIA, Mich. — The COVID-19 pandemic is causing disruptions with everything, including the college education that's been building for Calvin University students incarcerated at Handlon Correctional Facility. 

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For 5 years, Calvin University has held college courses at Handlon Correctional Facility in Ionia. The first class was supposed to graduate in May.

The restrictions put in place March 12 by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer meant no more Calvin professors and student tutors could enter the prison, leaving faculty members wondering how the semester would be completed.

In response, the inmates have decided to rely on each other to complete the coursework. They're running informal lectures on a daily basis, tutoring and leading worship services - all of which is keeping them on pace to graduate and receive their Bachelor's Degrees.

The "Calvin College Initiative" awarded its first cohort of 17 students with certificates of completion Friday at a Convocation ceremony held inside the Handlon Correctional Facility in Ionia. The students who received their certificates are a year and a half into their Calvin education.

"I have to admit, I had some sleepless nights thinking of how we're going to finish this semester," said Todd Cioffi, director of the Calvin Prison Initiative (CPI). "If those students had lost half the semester, the way our calendar year is structured, how do we make that up?"

During the past five years, the CPI - a partnership between Calvin University, Calvin Theological Seminary and the Michigan Department of Corrections, that offers inmates a bachelor of arts degree from Calvin University in Faith and Community Leadership - has been working toward transforming the prison system through education.

Credit: WZZM
100 inmates incarcerated at Handlon Corectional Facility in Ionia were set tp earn Bachelor's Degrees on May 11, 2020.

The 17 Calvin students who enrolled in the program at the Handlon Facility in 2015 were set to graduate May 11, which would have made them the first cohort of Bachelor's degree students ever from inside a Michigan prison.

But, the coronavirus postponed it.

"Upon graduation, these students will go into other Michigan prisons and use their degree in faith and community leadership," added Cioffi. "They'll be involved in existing prison ministries.

"Just like any other bachelor of arts graduate, they will be 'employable,' if you will, for a variety of tasks, especially given that they earned a humanities-based degree."

Since the stay at home order went into place, Cioffi, or another member of the Calvin Knollcrest faculty in Grand Rapids, has been driving 80 miles round trip, every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, to the prison to drop off a thumb drive with the warden that has the latest coursework for the students to download and use to begin studying.

Credit: WZZM
Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, a CPI faculty member delivers this 'travel drive' which contains fresh coursework for the inmates to complete.

"Our entire program for five years has been about face-to-face and togetherness, and we can't do that right now," said Cioffi. "We were building community, and community is really what begins to establish a culture or a change in culture."

Little did Cioffi know that the inmates, who no longer could rely on in-person accountability, decided to rely on themselves. They became both the students and the teachers, proving the program has been working.

"The guys are stepping up," said Cioffi. "They didn't have to do this, but we're so glad that they have grabbed hold of the mission of the program.

"They're recognized as the leaders that they really are. All the moral formation that comes with this type pf experience is paying off."

Cioffi says that once the COVID-19 pandemic calms down, Calvin will have a wonderful illustration to pass around the state to other prison wardens.

"These inmates have truly inspired all of the faculty at Calvin," said Cioffi. "We may complain about having to stay at home and not be able to do some of the things we would love to do, and here are a bunch of inmates who are locked up and said, 'Alright, we'll figure it out. We're going to do what we can do.'"

Cioffi says Calvin is looking at sometime in September 2020 to reschedule the graduation ceremony at the Handlon Facility.

He adds that because of the way the inmates have stepped up and taken control of their own learning, the CPI faculty at Calvin has been able to start preparing for the summer semester at the prison, as planned.

"Professors are already starting to figure out how to formulate their summer curriculum," said Cioffi. "We're even considering adding a biology class in the summer for the students at Handlon."

Since the CPI program was established in 2015, it's grown to 87 students in 2020.

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