GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Springtime is graduation season all across the country and right here in West Michigan. You might not expect a graduation ceremony to take place inside the confines of a prison but that’s exactly what happened Monday.
The processional looked like most graduations: Guest gathered to see their loved ones receive certification that they had achieved an associate or bachelor’s degree, there was a commencement address and a presentation of the diplomas.
This was the graduation ceremony for the Calvin Prison Initiative, a joint project of Calvin University and the Calvin Theological Seminary. Those receiving diplomas were all inmates at the Richard A. Handlon Correctional Facility in Ionia County.
Todd Cioffi is the director Calvin Prison Initiative. He said the idea started with nonaccredited courses as early as 2010 and then evolved.
“When we started our program the goal was a BA in faith and community leadership, five year program, we take in 20 students a year they go five years, earn their BA,” Cioffi said. “Our first BA class really finished in 2020 but today they’ll walk.”
The program is partially fashioned after others that have shown positive results both in and outside prison walls.
State Sen. Mark Huizenga, R-Walker, was skeptical when he first learned of the program. His skepticism soon vanished.
“Frankly when I first heard about the program I thought, ‘What could this possibly be, why would we give dollars for those that are incarcerated?'” Huizenga said. “The returns are incredible. When we see a reduction in violence in the prisons, when we see people come out of prisons and to be able to have real jobs — not just jobs but careers.”
That change of mind led to a $1 million appropriation to help scale the program up.
On Monday, 76 students from the 2020, 2021 and 2022 finally got the recognition they had worked for in a combined ceremony.
Many would agree that reduced violence and recidivism are positive outcomes for society, but what does it means for the person receiving that diploma?
Crisanto Escabalzeta graduated Monday. When asked about what it meant to him, he said he got an education, yes, but he also got something much more.
“It means hope. I mean again, like you just described once we commit our crimes, we’ve done a detriment to our victims, to our community and this gives us a second breath, a second chance at life. So I would say with hope, it re-instills humanity in us and helps heal us as well,” Escabalzeta said.
At the reception afterword, a feeling of accomplishment was fully on display. Families hugged and congratulated their graduates and, like Escabalzeta, had a sense of hope for a better future.