Corrections and trades college programs are creating positive change in the population, says deputy warden

IONIA COUNTY, MI — A culture shift is happening behind the high fences and barbed wire that surround the Richard A. Handlon Correctional Facility.

Outside, the all-male medium-security prison has transformed from a place of dirt and cement to one with flower gardens, which the prisoners tend to.

And, inside those walls, the prison population is transforming thanks to new initiatives, the Calvin Prison Initiative and a trades program, according to state corrections officials.

Deputy Deputy Warden of the Correctional Facility, John Sutton, told the roundtable how prisoners and staff were skeptical of the Calvin University program at first. Sutton said prisoners in the Calvin program stayed the course, and then staff and other prisoners joined.

“More prisoners were saying, how do I get in, how do I get into this (college initiative) or trades (vocational village program), and we started having fewer problems…everything just started to go down. “soften and then it was like a garden all of a sudden. We started growing more flowers and gardens again,” Sutton said.

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MLive toured the facility with James Kvaal, U.S. Department of Education Undersecretary, and other federal education officials last week. After a four-hour tour and roundtable discussion, Kvaal left “impressed” with the Calvin Prison Initiative program, which is run in partnership with the Michigan Department of Corrections.

CPI is a five-year program, run by Calvin University, that gives inmates the opportunity to pursue a Christian liberal arts education.

Prisoners who successfully complete CPI will earn a bachelor’s degree in faith and community leadership from Calvin University. After three successful years in the program, each prisoner will also earn an associate degree.

During the roundtable, prison staff, Calvin stakeholders and recent program graduates spoke about the change they have seen since the program began in 2015.

“We have been given an incredible privilege with this education,” Patrick Lee Campbell said moments before receiving his bachelor’s degree at graduation in May. “Now it’s our turn to spread this knowledge.”

RELATED: Prisoners receive college degrees during a graduation ceremony at a Michigan prison

The prison also has another program that has been very successful in helping those seeking a future after prison in the skilled trades.

The Vocational Village program opened in 2016, offering training in a variety of trades: carpentry, plumbing, machine shop, automotive, and welding.

At full capacity, the prison’s skilled trades program can accommodate 165 vocational trades students, 27 vocational trades tutors and 12 construction trades workers, according to state corrections officials.

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