Earning a College Degree Behind Bars

Date Published

May 1, 2016

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Published by Calvin Seminary

Armondo grew up in a violent home. Most of his family was hooked on drugs or alcohol or both. Being in that environment, he said, took its toll and played a role in his committing the crime for which he is now confined to Handlon Correctional Facility in Ionia, Mich.

Not a churchgoer as a youth, Armondo nevertheless had an inkling of faith in God, and that faith led to him enrolling in a new bachelor of arts program in ministry leadership offered at the Handlon Facility by Calvin College in cooperation with Calvin Theological Seminary.

“I enjoy being part of this program. It gives me the chance to break the perpetual cycle of nonsense you can get into when you are in prison,” Armondo said after a convocation ceremony celebrating the Calvin Prison Initiative.

“I’ve done bad things and made mistakes. This program is something to keep me occupied and to change my attitude.”

Since September 2015, Armondo and 19 other inmates have attended classes on the Old Testament, philosophy, and English three days a week in a classroom at the prison.

This joint effort between the college and seminary is unique in the prison system. Any inmate in one of Michigan’s 31 prisons can apply and, if accepted, will be transferred to start classes in September.

John Rottman, professor of preaching, gave the convocation address, reflecting on how he took some students to the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola in 2010.

They went to Angola, once known as one of the “bloodiest” prisons in the U.S., to learn more about the education program offered there by New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.

“That week at Angola changed my life,” said Rottman. “I taught, [and I] visited death row and the hospice. We had worship. I saw the prison in its totality and saw how there were moral reforms as a result of the program with the Baptist seminary.”

On the way back from that trip, he said, he and the students wondered if a similar program could be launched in Michigan, but they decided it couldn’t happen.

However, in the spring of 2011, some inmates at Handlon wrote the seminary a letter, asking if they could start a program there.

Ronald Feenstra, academic dean at the seminary, looked into it and approached Dan Heyns, director of the Michigan Department of Corrections, who was familiar with Calvin. Heyns eventually recommended that the warden at Handlon allow the seminary to start offering a class on Tuesday nights.

Meanwhile, David Rylaarsdam, professor of historical theology at the seminary, put together a proposal for a bachelor’s degree in ministry leadership and approached Calvin College to join in and seek accreditation for the initiative. Once accreditation was in place, the prison gave the go ahead.

During the convocation, inmates showed a video, featuring photos of themselves and their friends and families from the days before they were placed behind bars.

In the video, they admitted they had failed those who loved them. But they also said: “We are human beings, and, because of your love and support, we are hopeful, encouraged, inspired, and redeemed, and one day we will be worldchangers. Thank you, Calvin College.”


By Chris Meehan


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