Students learning behind bars are on their way to a college education

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IONIA, Mich. —Being a prisoner is a tough life, but often it’s leaving prison that is the hardest.

At Handlon Correctional Facility in Ionia, they take pride in getting their inmates ready to head back into the workforce. They are now partnering with a local college to give inmates a leg up.

The Calvin Prison Initiative has a Theological Seminary program, and Friday it awarded its first cohort of 17 students with certificates of completion at the Convocation ceremony held inside Handlon.

The students received certificates for completing 1.5 years of their Calvin College education. The students are on the track to complete their bachelor’s degree in 5 years.

Since the program was accredited in 2016, a second cohort of 20 students have begun their studies at Handlon.

Now 37 inmates in total are enrolled in the Calvin Prison Initiative, where faculty primarily from Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary are heading into the prison a few times each week to teach courses. Students from Calvin’s Knollcrest campus also go to Handlon each week to mentor their peers.

47-year-old Rafael De Jesus has been in prison for dealing drugs since he was 23.

“I mean I am doing something that really matters,” said De Jesus.

He said he dropped out of Bronx Community College as a young adult, and fell into the wrong crowds.

“At one point in my life, I was totally out of control. I didn’t care about anything,” said De Jesus.

De Jesus said that continued when he first got to prison. He said he was angry, and didn’t participate in bettering himself. Eventually, he let go of his anger when his mom got sick. He started exercising and running in the prison. Then he joined AA.

After that, he learned several trade skills like carpentry and roofing. He even practiced painting. He presented a beautiful painting to one of the faculty members at their ceremony on Friday to thank them for their hard work, and giving him this opportunity.

“My father taught me two things, to be strong and grateful, and I wanted to show them I am grateful for this program,” said De Jesus.

De Jesus said his father was an alcoholic, and he didn’t have anyone to pull him in the right direction. He wants to change that for young people out there that may be dealing with the same problem.

“Prison is an ugly place. It really is. I would like to be able to help people, especially youth. I didn’t have that. I didn’t’ have that person who grabbed me by the hand and said let me talk to you because I see you are going in the wrong path,” said De Jesus.

Deputy Director, Ken McKee, said the prisons used to only have programs that focused on helping inmates adjust to life outside the prison closer to when they were released, but now they are changing their thinking. They start the process years ahead of time with opportunities like a higher education.

“It’s all about offender success,” said McKee.

Handlon has something called Vocational Village. They make sure they are teaching all kinds of trade skills to their inmates to help them get jobs once they leave.

“Prisoners are getting certificates in things like welding and auto mechanic repair and plumbing and electrical. We have employers coming in here and interviewing prisoners prior to their release in prison and they are walking out with jobs. It’s not taking away from individuals in the community because these employers cannot find people to fill those positions in their communities so they are reaching out to us,” said McKee.

McKee said 95 percent of the inmates will go back into the workforce in our communities, so getting them prepared to be useful in our society is a win-win.

The professors at Calvin are also trying to change a stigma. Professor Amy Richards remembers asking about security when they asked her to teach a public speaking class at the prison.

She said her mindset completely changed the first day she walked in. Instead, she wasn’t worried about her safety, but about if she had enough teaching material to keep them busy.

“The concept of lock them up and throwing away the key came to mind. What does that really mean? For most other people throwing away the key is not thinking about those people at all,” said Richards.

Professor Richards said it has now made her start thinking about the people behind bars as actual people, like De Jesus, who is doing their time, and working to better themselves so they can one day get a second chance.

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