A pilot program by Hope College and Western Theological Seminary (WTS) to provide a Christian liberal arts education to incarcerated men at Muskegon Correctional Facility in Muskegon, MI has shown such initial success that the college is now pursuing accreditation for a full Bachelor of Arts degree.
“Essentially, the prison will become an extension campus of the college, and men housed there will be able to earn a Bachelor of Arts majoring in Faith, Leadership, and Service with standards as rigorous as those expected of Holland-based Hope College students,” says Dr. Richard Ray, a professor of kinesiology at Hope who is co-directing the program with Dr. David Stubbs, professor of theology and ethics at Western Theological Seminary.
“Why a prison education program? It is part of the Christian mission of our schools,” Stubbs says. “At the heart of a liberal arts education is equipping people with a vision of who they are, who they can be, and what human life is all about. These men are changed by that vision.”
Following the model established by The Hope-Western Prison Education Program (HWPEP) pilot, begun in March 2019, the classes will be taught by professors from Hope College and WTS, and Hope and Western students will have the opportunity to be teaching assistants. Since its start, seven professors from Hope and Western have taught six classes to 20 incarcerated students who have enrolled in HWPEP. Ten seminary and college students have served as assistants.
A cohort of 20 students will be added each year until the program is fully operational at four cohorts (80 students). The students will be recruited from among the 31,000 male prisoners in the 26-prison system operated by the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC). Prospective students will apply to the college, and if accepted, they will be moved to the Muskegon Correctional Facility.
“For a lot of these men, this will be the first real community they have had since being incarcerated,” Ray says.
The seeds for HWPEP were sown by a student in Calvin University’s Calvin Prison Initiative (CPI) at Handlon Correctional Facility in Ionia, MI. He was a pen pal with Dr. Jared Ortiz, a professor at Hope College, and pitched to him the rather unusual idea that he and his fellow students at Handlon should host a conference on restorative justice at Hope College. That conference, “Hope for Restoration: Radical Hospitality and Prison Reform,” took place on March 4, 2017, and the CPI students participated virtually from Handlon.
Inspired by the conference, about 20 Hope and Western professors met to discuss whether something like the CPI program could serve as a model for Hope and Western. Stubbs was particularly struck by the idea, and after several talks with the people at Calvin and visits to the Handlon prison where he saw how Calvin students had changed the culture, he became convinced he should devote himself to this important project. Soon Ray was on board, too, and the CPI leadership graciously took them under their wings.
The two professors and a steering committee spent 18 months preparing for the pilot program launch, earning the support of MDOC, the warden at Muskegon Correctional Facility, and then-presidents Timothy Brown (WTS) and Dennis Voskuil (Hope).
“At the MDOC, we are strong proponents of education and understand the positive effects it can have not only on the individual, but those around them and their families,” MDOC Director Heidi Washington says. “These students—and someday, graduates—will chart a new course for their lives and lead by example, showing that making in a difference in themselves gives them the ability to make a difference in others and the world.”
Stubbs taught the first class, “What are People For?” This was followed by “Differing Meanings of Freedom” by Dr. Jim Allis (Hope), “Communicating with Courage and Compassion” by Dr. Pam Bush (WTS), and “What is the Good Life?” by Dr. Steven Bouma-Prediger (Hope).
“The men in the program were thrilled to be gaining an education and very quickly began teaching bunkmates and family members what they were learning,” says Stubbs. “They even stopped fights in the yard using non-violent communication techniques learned in class.”
“Most of my life has been a journey in trying to find something greater than myself,” said one student. “Getting a college education would give me the tools necessary to complete my journey—to be a better man, to be a bigger person than I once was, and to contribute to the world around me in a positive way.”
Recent WTS graduate Gene Ryan ’21 served as a teaching assistant, helping the men with their papers. “These students showed me that walls and bars cannot contain the work of the mind,” he says.
The professors noticed their reading assignments resounded far differently in the prison than in an academic setting. "I'm a Christian theologian and ethicist," says Stubbs, "so things like guilt, forgiveness, freedom, bondage, and justice are all fundamental concepts. Put into a prison context, the echoes of those ideas are so different that it has changed my understanding and changed how I teach."
In 2020, coronavirus lockdowns temporarily halted HWPEP as visitors were not allowed into the prison facilities. “Friendship and Community” by Drs. Dennis Feaster and Curtis Gruenler (Hope) was completed as a correspondence course, and “Exploring Faith, Leadership, and Service” was offered and also completed by mail.
Ray and Stubbs explain that moving forward with HWPEP will involve many critical steps, including Higher Learning Commission approval of MCF as a satellite campus of Hope College, the recruitment of faculty, and the recruitment of a robust pool of generous donors who recognize the redemptive potential of education to transform those locked away from society. They emphasize that HWPEP comes at no expense to taxpayers.
A generous donor has committed to match gifts to Western Theological Seminary in support of the HWPEP program up to $100,000 each year for four years. “This gift holds the promise of serving as a transformational catalyst and is the most significant in HWPEP's history,” Stubbs says.
Learn more at: hope.edu/hwpep