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The Power of Christian Higher Education for the Incarcerated

Transformational sentences change lives.

The Power of Christian Higher Education for the Incarcerated

Transformational sentences change lives.

The classroom buzzes with vibrant discussions. Students sit in pairs, working their way through a variety of activities. The professor walks from group to group, encouraging them in their work. The energy in the room is high, and the collective disposition is bright.

A few minutes ago, it wasn’t. The students were visibly anxious. As they shared concerns about understanding the coursework, many cited previous struggles with math classes and concepts. So their professor, David Austin of Grand Valley State University, took a fresh approach.

Dividing the students into pairs, Austin instructed them to solve puzzles and play a few games. Working together, the students collaborated, persistently struggling until they uncovered solution after solution. And then, after 90 minutes, Austin broke the news: they hadn’t simply been enjoying a lighthearted introduction to their math class. In solving these problems and making their way through all the exercises, the students had been doing calculus. Successfully. Joyfully. Competently.

The students were stunned. While the relief for a traditional student may be centered on not failing the class or keeping a scholarship, these participants were relieved and empowered on a different level. When these students left the classroom, they wouldn’t be walking to their cars or the bus stop. They’d be returning to cells.

The transformation from anxiety to assurance took place inside a classroom at Muskegon Correctional Facility in Muskegon, Michigan. The students were inmates, and the class was part of the Hope-Western Prison Education program, one of several Christian higher education programs that offer college degrees to incarcerated individuals.

Through a partnership between Hope College and Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan, the program offers a bachelor of arts in faith, leadership, and service to men in the Michigan Department of Corrections system. To address questions about what kind of impact a program like this can have on the lives of incarcerated people, the Vera Institute and RAND Corporation report that individuals who participate in postsecondary education while incarcerated are 48 percent less likely to recidivate, or relapse into criminal activity.

Pam Bush, associate director of learning and formation with the Hope-Western Prison Education Program, is quick to point out that these programs are opportunities for personal transformation and gospel work inside prisons.

“We believe that [inmates] have a call even if they never step outside of the prison,” says Bush. “We really want to help equip them for [ministry], and we think it can be just as powerful as utilizing their education outside the prison.”

In other words, these educational leaders challenge Christians to see prison—even for the long-term or lifetime inmate—as a mission field unto itself, one that is too often forgotten yet ripe for redemption.

Behind These Bars

The implications of a long-term prison sentence can be difficult to fully understand. We live in a culture that prizes autonomy, choice, and accomplishment. For the long-term inmate, those values are stripped away. And for many prisoners, there’s a correlating belief that without access to those cultural values, there is no access to personal value. If I can’t contribute to society, they may wonder, do I have anything to contribute at all?

Christian higher education is perfectly positioned to address this hopeless ethos. Through associate’s and bachelor’s degree plans that maintain academic rigor while speaking to the complex needs of inmates, these programs give incarcerated individuals the chance to develop a vision for the future. For many, that future will take place entirely behind bars. That’s why several programs prioritize inmates who have lengthy or lifelong sentences.

For the Hope-Western program, for example, students must have at least seven more years of their sentence to serve, a policy also held by the Calvin Prison Initiative (CPI) out of Calvin University. The Heart of Texas Foundation College of Ministry, which offers a bachelor of arts in applied ministry, exclusively admits individuals serving extremely long or lifetime sentences.

Often, these students have committed serious crimes—wrongdoings that Grove and Brenna Norwood, who founded and run the Heart of Texas Foundation College of Ministry, do not take lightly. They recognize that the men at the Memorial Unit and women at the Hobby Unit have perpetrated injustices that changed the lives of victims and their families forever. Because of that, the Norwoods are very cautious in how they present their work. They know that the names, stories, and pictures of men and women who they know as students, as brothers and sisters in Christ, would be seen by victims in an entirely different light.

But why are these programs prioritizing long-term prisoners? Because as the leaders of such programs can confirm, the lives of incarcerated individuals and entire prison communities can be transformed by Christian education.

Once Heart of Texas Foundation students graduate, they are appointed by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice as Field Ministers and transferred in teams of two or more to a different prison in the state, not unlike seminary students who take a call to foreign missions. In this case, the students are from a place similar to the mission field they’re entering. They speak the language. They understand the culture.

The Power of Peers

“Their lives without Christ and their pursuit of life inside this place isn’t so pretty,” says Brenna. “But it’s the very thing that makes them experts in a way no one else is. Their credibility, peer-to-peer, is unmatched.”

In prisons across the country, God is using that peer-to-peer mentorship to bring about redemption. At the Missouri Department of Corrections, the junior class of students in Hannibal-LaGrange University’s Freedom on the Inside program recently took their first Christian counseling course. They learned how to deal with anger, provide grief counseling, and counsel men who have experienced trauma that led to their incarceration.

“The students have now started the Next Man Up program,” says director Rodrick Sweet. “They are counseling and working with offenders through their experiences and life choices. They’re helping them try to become better fathers [and] husbands.”

Following a similar path, students in the CPI program at the Richard A. Handlon Correctional Facility in Ionia, Michigan, have created Breaking the Chains—a peer-led group curriculum that addresses substance abuse. The groups have transformed drug and alcohol response in the prisons—inmates who previously had access to one Narcotics Anonymous or Alcohol Anonymous meeting per week can now attend a Breaking the Chains group every day.

The students in these programs tend to see themselves as a tight community—one that forms friendships in order to succeed academically, grow spiritually, and serve collectively. That includes things like study groups and helping one another stay on top of coursework.

“Last summer I was in the hospital for three weeks,” said Tim Baker, the student speaker at the CPI opening convocation at Handlon in the fall of 2022. “When I returned, I was way behind. The funny thing was that I didn’t have to ask—the community came to me and asked where they could help. They took time out of their schedule to help me catch up. Without the community, I’m not sure that I would still be in this program. I owe them more than I can ever repay.”

God Makes a Way

That community support doesn’t exist only at the student level. The programs cannot operate without trust and respect between state departments of corrections and higher education institutions. Often, a department allows a bare-bones setup that then grows as prison leadership realizes the transformative nature of the program.

Many prison wardens and program directors hope to model the success seen at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. Once known as the bloodiest prison in America, Angola is the largest maximum-security prison in the United States. Former warden Burl Cain recognized the prison’s challenges. After he was approached by New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, he gladly welcomed professors into the prison. Cain’s risk paid off. The program led to an 80 percent reduction in rates of violence.

“The entire facility changed,” says Christina Haven, the student support specialist for CPI. “There are numerous active churches. [Due to the reduction in violence], prisoners have a lot more freedom of movement and freedom in what they can do. The idea that education is capable of transforming an environment is what inspired CPI.”

Andre T. Melvin, program director for the Prison Initiative at Columbia International University (CIU) in South Carolina, points to Angola as their program’s origin story as well. Their program at Kirkland Correctional Institution began in 2007 and has graduated 195 inmates. Graduates who are still incarcerated are serving as chaplain assistants at over 20 correctional institutions across the state of South Carolina. Of the 50 graduates who have been released, they see a 5 percent recidivism rate—a significant reduction from the state’s overall rate of 23 percent.

Jeff McCormack, chief academic officer at Oklahoma Christian University (OC), notes that internal studies in Oklahoma have demonstrated that incarcerated individuals who take just two college classes see a drastic decrease in recidivism—from 55 to 60 percent re-incarceration to zero.

McCormack, the driving force behind OC’s associate of science degree program offered to women at Mabel Bassett Correctional Center, says recent legislative changes have included the distribution of tablets to all Oklahoman inmates and reinstating Pell Grant eligibility, a massive windfall for these Christian higher education programs that are almost always fully reliant on donor funding. The opportunity for expansion of Christian higher education in correctional facilities throughout the country is, perhaps, the greatest it has ever been.

From Prison to Paradise

As these programs grow, schools carefully curate curricula to maintain rigorous accreditation standards and meet the specific needs of inmates. Recidivism rates are plummeting. Violence within these facilities is decreasing. Cultural divides are closing. Hope is growing.

And it’s just the beginning.

“We really won’t know the fruit of this until we get around the throne,” says Melvin. “[We won’t know] who we have trained and discipled and how they’ve gone and ministered to others and their families. When we get around the throne, that’s when we’ll connect the dots. That’s when all the stories will be told. That’s why I do this work. I can’t think of a better means for kingdom impact.”

Abby Perry is a freelance writer who lives with her husband and two sons in Texas. You can find her work at Sojourners , Texas Monthly , and Nations Media .

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