Calvin Prison Initiative proves second chances can pay off

Grand Rapids

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Michael Duthler says he believes in second chances: And once you learn his story, you’ll understand why.

The Grand Rapids native says he had drug issues and was on the wrong path when he killed a man. In November 1992, he was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole. Behind bars, he got sober and turned his life around.

Fast forward to 2015, Duthler learned about a new program being launched by Calvin College (now Calvin University). It was called the Calvin Prison Initiative: an opportunity for inmates to work toward a college degree while incarcerated.

But this program was different.

“They were actually looking for people serving either natural life, parolable life or long indeterminate sentences. So that got my ears perked up right away,” Duthler told News 8. “Usually these programs are offered to people who are within five years of their earliest release date. Obviously, it’s a limited resource, they want to give them the best foot going forward. But Calvin College at that time, based on the model that they had seen in Angola, saw the transformative effect of education in prison cultures.”

Angola is the nickname for Louisiana State Penitentiary — the largest maximum-security prison in the United States — and in 1993, the most dangerous. The prison’s warden, Burl Cain, knew something had to change.

So he decided to let a local seminary into the prison to start teaching classes. In the years that followed, violent incidents at the prison dropped 80% and the program was hailed as a breakthrough with similar ones popping up across the country.

Duthler was one of 20 inmates selected for the inaugural class of students in the Calvin Prison Initiative, attending classes at the Richard A. Handlon Correctional Facility in Ionia, following the same curriculum as any other Calvin student.

Duthler was granted parole in 2018 and knew that after 26 years behind bars, education was his way to stay moving in the right direction.

“My first full day of freedom, the first thing I did was go to Calvin and begin completing the FAFSA paperwork so I could begin classes that fall,” Duthler said.

Out on parole, Duthler was no longer considered part of the Calvin Prison Initiative, where costs are covered by private donations. Duthler admits he wouldn’t have been able to afford classes, even with federal aid. But officials at Calvin connected him with a donor who was willing to cover the remaining costs.

He finished his coursework on Calvin’s main campus, graduated in May 2020 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Social Work, and after a one-year pandemic delay finally got his moment to don his cap and gown.

“It was just very emotional,” Duthler said. “I was very much thinking of those same people who had supported me throughout my journey, whether at Calvin Theological Seminary, at Calvin University, the donors, my family, my friends. But, for me in a very particular way, I was thinking about the guys that are still at Handlon Correctional Facility.”

Duthler got a second chance. And he’s grateful for it.

“Often, when I’m hitting milestones, I’m remembering that part of the narrative is that, but for the donors who were there when I was inside and the donors I’ve had since I’ve been home. But for the warden who was willing to make this a reality at Handlon Correctional Facility. But for the director of the Department of Corrections. But for the people at Calvin Seminary and Calvin University. All these people created a path. And it was up to me to walk it.”

Duthler is currently working as a Recovery & Re-Entry Coach at Fresh Coast Alliance in Muskegon — a non-profit dedicated to helping inmates re-acclimate to society.

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