Michigan inmates among program's first to earn bachelor's degrees

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

Correction: Calvin Theological Seminary professor John Rottman visited the Louisiana State Penitentiary in 2010 to see a college education program before helping create the Calvin Prison Initiative. His name was not included in an earlier version of this story.

Ionia — Raymond Potts was heading to prison 16 years ago when he began to reflect on how his poor choices had affected his family, his friends and himself.

Potts, then 36, realized he couldn't do anything about the two first-degree criminal sexual conduct convictions that landed him a sentence that will keep him in prison until at least 2050. So he worked to become a leader inside prison by getting involved in numerous educational activities, from mediation certification to seminary work to culinary arts.

Seven years ago, Potts, now 52, began one of his most ambitious efforts: Working toward a bachelor's degree that included studying psychology, philosophy, literature and politics twice a day each weekday at the Richard A. Handlon Correctional Facility in Ionia.

On Monday, Potts was among 45 inmates who were among the first in Michigan to be bestowed with bachelor's degrees inside a state prison in a program designed to lower recidivism among inmates who will one day be free and make leaders out of those serving life sentences in an effort to reduce violence in prisons. 

"You can't change the past, but I chose to look forward," said Potts, who grew up in Detroit. "I don't believe rehabilitation lives in prison. It lives in the person. It starts inside."

Inmates Patrick Campbell, left, and Raymond Potts hug before their graduation ceremony at the Richard A. Handlon Correctional Facility in Ionia on Monday, May 9, 2022.

The inmates earned their degrees through the Calvin Prison Initiative, a partnership between Grand-Rapids-based Calvin University and Calvin Theological Seminary and the Michigan Department of Corrections.

Also graduating were another 31 inmates who earned associate degrees. All the graduates earned degrees in faith and community leadership.

"I could grow doing this," said Kristopher Stidham, 44, who earned an associate degree. 

Stidham, who had a previous conviction for second-degree home invasion, was sentenced in 2001 to 40-75 years in prison for second-degree murder.

"I'm the first person in my family to ever graduate from college," Stidham said. "It feels wonderful. I owe this to my family."

National research has shown that prisoners who get an education while incarcerated are less likely to be rearrested or convicted and returned to prison. But half of the inmates who received four-year degrees have been sentenced to life behind bars and will never get out.

Todd Cioffi, director of the Calvin Prison Initiative, said the state has limited funding so it invests in programs for inmates who will return to society. The Calvin Prison Initiative goes further, also educating those who won't ever get out of prison. The goal is to train them to have a calming presence with the younger population and play a role in addressing the numerous needs in prison such as mentoring, running groups and counseling the bereaved.

Inmates in caps and gowns make their way to a graduation ceremony for students from the Calvin Prison Initiative at the Richard A. Handlon Correctional Facility in Ionia on Monday, May 9, 2022.

"We hope this will contribute to a better environment: More peaceful, less violence," said Cioffi, who's also an associate professor of ministry studies at Calvin University. "There is a community here. We need to resource and develop and mentor everybody. The guys who are in here for life have a very significant role in the community."

They're the ones who gain wisdom after being in the prison and can provide guidance to others, he added.

The program began in 2015 after John Rottman, professor of preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary, visited a similar program five years earlier at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola. He learned how a Southern Baptist Bible college program offering four-year degrees since the 1990s was linked to a drop in violent crime in the prison.

Rottman wondered: Could it be done in Michigan?

The seminary couldn't grant degrees, so it partnered with Calvin University. Anonymous donors along with federal Pell Grants fund the program, which costs $800,000 a year and enrolls 20 inmates annually.

The Calvin Prison Initiative is only available at the Richard A. Handlon Correctional Facility, but Cioffi said that best practices from the program are being developed and shared with a consortium of colleges across Michigan.

Fellow inmates applaud and cheer the soon-to-be graduates as they arrive for their graduation ceremony at the Richard A. Handlon Correctional Facility in Ionia on Monday, May 9, 2022.

The hope is to expand the educational effort to other prisons and make Michigan a national leader in prisoner education, Cioffi said.

Monday's ceremony recognized inmates who earned their degrees in 2020, 2021 and 2022 during a ceremony under a tent on the grounds. Earlier ceremonies had been delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Graduates wore caps and gowns and were cheered and applauded by fellow inmates still progressing in the program, along with family and friends.

"We are trying to change the atmosphere in prison," said Potts, who thrust his fist in the air as he walked up to get his degree. "They don't send people who are not broken here. I'm broken. We're all broken. Maybe we can help the next guy grow."