Behind Our Walls: The Calvin Prison Initiative and the Power of Second Chances
Published by Calvin Seminary
On October 2, 2023, Nate Roels took home the ‘Best Documentary’ award from the Grand Rapids Film Festival. His award-winning film? Behind Our Walls, a documentary that follows the lives of 8 inmates at Handlon Prison in Ionia, Michigan, whose lives have been changed by the education offered through the Calvin Prison Initiative. After years of tireless efforts filming, editing, interviewing and fundraising, Behind Our Walls is changing the narrative about prisoners, both in West Michigan and around the country, reminding viewers that each person is deserving of second chances and shouldn’t be defined by their worst mistakes.
Nate Roels & His Introduction to the Calvin Prison Initiative
Born and raised in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Nate Roels entered Calvin University as a Business major. After working in video production for a semester, Nate changed to a Film major, where his classes with Carl Plantinga, Sam Smartt and other film professors helped confirm his love and passion for filmmaking.
During a documentary filmmaking class at Calvin University, Nate was assigned to make a short documentary film about a formerly incarcerated person. With the help of Todd Cioffi, Director of the Calvin Prison Initiative, Nate was introduced to several inmates at the Handlon Prison, as well as formerly incarcerated individuals who were reentering the community. Because of Nate’s excellent work on the documentary, Calvin Prison Initiative hired Nate for ongoing video work on their behalf, allowing him multiple opportunities to visit Handlon Prison, observe Calvin Prison Initiative class sessions, and build relationships with inmates.
What About a Documentary?
As Nate continued to work on video projects for the Calvin Prison Initiative, he began brainstorming ways that a full-length documentary could highlight the transformation, collaboration, and relationships in the Calvin Prison Initiative. After presenting the idea to the leadership of Calvin Prison Initiative, they began helping Nate secure the funding necessary to produce a full-length documentary. Nate began filming in 2019, and the pandemic lockdowns of 2020 and 2021 offered him extensive time to develop a rough cut of the documentary before returning to Handlon Prison for a few additional days in 2022 to film more content, with production formally ending in Spring 2023.
Over the course of the editing process, Nate sifted through hours of footage, significantly reducing the amount of content in order to effectively tell the stories of 8 prisoners and their transformative experience with the Calvin Prison Initiative. During the editing process, Nate also hired a colorist and composer, who provided artistic and musical refinement of the film.
Looking back on the filmmaking process, Nate cites the privilege he had to form relationships with Calvin Prison Initiative students, describing the impact the filmmaking process and relationships impacted him and his desires for the film.
One formative aspect of making Behind Our Walls was the opportunity Nate had to form relationships with the Calvin Prison Initiative students.
Because of the short film he made in college, Nate already had pre-existing relationships with many students prior to beginning the documentary filming. Many of the students had seen Nate’s short film and developed artwork based on it, as well. Because these relationships existed for many years prior to filming for Behind Our Walls, the students trusted that Nate and the Calvin Prison Initiative had their best interest in mind and weren’t going to exploit them for their own gain. Over time, Nate had established trusting relationships with the students and they knew Nate cared about their stories.
During the filming and interview process, Nate allowed each student to tell their story as they saw fit. Nate didn’t ask for details about the crimes they committed, but instead asked broad questions and allowed each student to go into as much or as little detail as they desired to share. Throughout Behind Our Walls, viewers hear the stories of eight of the students–ValMarcus Jones, Grady Hudson, Larry X Conic, Armondo Benavidez, René Rodríguez, Eric Boldiszar, Anthony Wllis and Jamie Sturdivant–who share aspects of their life story, their griefs and joys, and their transformational experience in the Calvin Prison Initiative. Without Nate’s ongoing commitment to trusting relationships with each student, this intimate, thought-provoking aspect of the documentary would not have been possible.
In addition to building personal relationships with Calvin Prison Initiative students, Nate cited two particular students whose stories were impactful for him as he developed the film.
The first story was from Anthony, who shared in the documentary about his experience as a father and missing the birth of his second child due to his incarceration. In the documentary, Anthony shares about the heartbreaking moment that he learned that his wife placed their two children for adoption due to his incarceration. As a father, Nate was impacted by Anthony’s story, reflections on his mistakes as a father and husband, and the unimaginable grief of missing out on the birth of a child.
Another story–not featured in the documentary, yet impactful for Nate–was about an individual who was wrongfully convicted for a crime he didn’t commit. This student shared that he didn’t want his mom to see that her womb “produced garbage” and was committed to doing good while incarcerated. Although wrongfully convicted and already incarcerated for a few decades, this student was giving back in a variety of ways within the program and the broader community.
Hopes & Desires for the Film
As a filmmaker, Nate has deep hopes and desires for the long-term impact of Behind Our Walls: to change how people perceive and minister to incarcerated and returning citizens, and to demonstrate the Gospel story by telling of the power of second chances.
The media of the 21st century has deeply influenced how our culture and society perceives incarcerated and returning citizens. Since the founding of the Calvin Prison Initiative, the public response to news coverage about the program has tended to be very negative, debating in social media comment sections about why anyone–much less, a university–would provide a free college degree to an incarcerated person. Behind Our Walls looks at the community that’s been established in Handlon Prison–across religious and racial lines, which is uncommon in our current society–and observes the transformation that’s taking place in each student as they receive an education.
Nate hopes that viewers will consider how they could minister to incarcerated and returning citizens, whether through letter-form mentorships (offered by Crossroads Prison Ministry and similar organizations) or ministries that help returning citizens find housing and employment following their incarceration. As a filmmaker, Nate hopes to continue sharing the stories of incarcerated and returning citizens, telling their stories in a dignifying, honoring way that educates and inspires viewers.
Through Behind Our Walls, Nate demonstrates the Gospel story by telling of the power of second chances. All who believe in Jesus Christ have been forgiven by Him and are called to forgive others, remembering that in Christ, they have been given a multitude of ‘second chances’ due to their sin and failure. Similarly, Nate hopes that viewers of the documentary will be reminded of the power of giving second chances, even to those whom society labels ‘undeserving’ and ‘unworthy’.
All people are more than their worst mistake. All people–even incarcerated individuals–are capable of change, restoration, redemption, and transformation. The students of the Calvin Prison Initiative are evidence of this truth.
-Written by Leah Jolly, CTS MDiv
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