Welcome Kary Bosma

After a nationwide search, the Hope-Western Prison Education Program is pleased to announce that Kary Bosma has been appointed Co-Director of the program. She will succeed Dr. Richard Ray, who will retire at the end of June, 2024. She joins Dr. David Stubbs, Professor of Ethics and Theology at Western Theological Seminary in leading the program into its next stage of development.

Kary comes to HWPEP from Calvin University, where she served as Director of Operations for the Calvin Prison Initiative. After earning her bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Calvin University, Kary cultivated a career in higher education at Calvin, where she served students through both student life and academic departments. When CPI began in 2015, Kary discovered a rare opportunity to combine her interests in the criminal justice system, restorative justice, and higher education. She joined the CPI staff in 2016. CPI grew to become a nationally recognized exemplar for prison education programs under her leadership of its operations.

“What began as a job in an area of interest developed into my calling and vocation,” said Bosma. “I witness daily the life-changing impact of a Christian liberal arts education on incarcerated students. Their minds are shaped and transformed as they explore the world through a variety of disciplines; and their sense of humanity is restored as they build community with professors, staff and fellow students.  It’s inspiring and humbling to see God at work through ordinary means, such as professors teaching, students reading and writing, and a learning community engaged in rich, sometimes challenging, dialogue. As a Christian, I believe God is a God of redemption and no one is beyond the grace He offers through faith in Jesus Christ. I have the privilege of demonstrating God’s love and grace through an educational program, affirming students’ humanity, encouraging them to discover and embrace their inherent worth as image bearers of God, inspiring their pursuit of a meaningful vocation, and working tirelessly to ensure students have the support and tools they need to succeed.”

Kary has actively supported the flourishing of prison education programs across Michigan. Beginning in 2021, Kary convened a monthly gathering of Michigan colleges and universities involved in higher education-in-prison alongside leaders from the Michigan Department of Corrections. In 2023, the group formally organized as the Michigan Consortium for Higher Education in Prison, with the goal of promoting higher education opportunities for incarcerated students, sharing best practices, developing shared educational standards, and learning from one another’s experiences. Kary serves as the Chairperson of MiCHEP’s Technology and Curriculum Subcommittee.

“We are thrilled to have a person of Kary’s experience and character join HWPEP’s leadership team in this critical role,” reports retiring Co-Director Richard Ray. “Few people have a deeper or more impactful history with college-in-prison than she does. And fewer still understand and are as committed to the character and mission of a Christian liberal arts college and the ways that such a college can transform the hearts, minds, and spirits of incarcerated students. She and fellow Co-Director David Stubbs will be a winning combination.”

Kary joins the HWPEP team to contribute to the program’s continued flourishing. “HWPEP has built a strong foundation under the leadership of Co-Directors Richard Ray and David Stubbs. I am eager to help lead the program through the next stage of growth and development. We’re working toward a student body of 80 students at Muskegon Correctional Facility, which will require the development of sufficient academic supports and continued integration into the Hope College and Western Theological Seminary ecosystems. In 2025, we will celebrate the graduation of our first cohort of students; and there is work to be done in collaboration with the Michigan Department of Corrections to develop post-graduation roles for graduates to positively impact and serve the many needs that exist in the prison community. I am hopeful for the future of HWPEP and am honored to contribute my gifts toward its success.”

The Hope-Western Prison Education Program offers a Bachelor of Arts to men incarcerated at Muskegon Correctional Facility. HWPEP is a partnership between Hope College, Western Theological Seminary, and the Michigan Department of Corrections. The program seeks to renew minds and form new persons while transforming the prison, the college, the seminary, and the West Michigan community into places where righteousness and peace embrace.

Schooled Hearts

U3167879, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

It’s graduation season. Western Theological Seminary students graduated yesterday. Hope College main campus students graduate next Sunday. There will be eight graduations in Michigan prisons over the next month, celebrating the degree attainment of incarcerated college students from four colleges associated with the Michigan Consortium for Higher Education in Prison. The most advanced students in the Hope-Western Prison Education Program are one year away from their graduation, but one can already sense their eagerness for the “Big Day.”

In the days, weeks, and months leading up to their graduation from college, students are bombarded ad nauseam by loving, supportive friends and relatives with the age-old question: What do you want to do when you after graduation? Most students — even those who, despite their fondest hopes, have no plans whatsoever — will confidently assert a seemingly plausible plan to find work in this field or that, or to pursue graduate education, perhaps after a year of still-to-be-determined employment.

Image Source: GoDaddy

This isn’t the first time our beloved graduates have been asked this question, though the form of the question is different. Way back in kindergarten or first grade most of us had the question posed to us in this way: What do you want to BE when you grow up?

A fireman. A doctor. A teacher. A baseball player.

And thus begins a lifelong vocational confusion between what it means to DO as opposed to what it means to BE. This confusion often reaches its apogee in college.

Students often go to college with DOING in mind. Doing is good and necessary. Doing puts food on the table. Doing puts roofs over heads. And those whose worldview promotes an understanding of humans as homo economicus notwithstanding, doing can align us with a God-whispered vocational call for our lives. Nothing wrong with doing.

Incarcerated people engaged in college education think about doing in similar ways as their non-incarcerated peers on the main campus. They want to DO things with their lives, and their college education informs their imagination for this doing. They want to give back to their communities through non-profit leadership, entrepreneurial engagement, and a host of other shared aspirations we non-incarcerated folks enjoy. Doing is challenging for formerly incarcerated people, but that doesn’t dull their imaginations or aspirations.

Courtesy of insidetime.org

Even incarcerated college students serving long, indeterminate, or life sentences are concerned with doing following their graduation. The prison system is chockablock with needs for which incarcerated college graduates can serve, and serve well. They can serve in academic support roles. Perhaps — one day — having incarcerated college professors will be common. Incarcerated college graduates can provide critically needed human service roles, including peer mentoring, addiction recovery support, and hospice care. “Even in a place like prison, you can find purpose,” asserts HWPEP student Anthony Robinson.

Diego Zapata washes Richard Liggett’s face, who was fighting advanced liver and lung cancers — one of many examples of gentle care that photographer Lori Waselchuk witnessed in the volunteer prisoner-run hospice program at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. © Lori Waselchuk

As good as doing is, we shouldn’t confuse it with something more important: Being. And as much as a college education can contribute to our ability to do, we shouldn’t confuse it with a college education’s main purpose, which is to help us be different people than if we hadn’t gone to college. This is true for average folks like you and me. And its manifestly true for incarcerated college students. Their college education is helping them to be different.

It’s providing them with schooled hearts.

“Even in a place like prison, you can find purpose.”

HWPEP student Anthony Robinson

Students — incarcerated or free — are not merely thinking things. They are — we are — instead, what they love. David Lyle Jeffrey’s notion of “the schooled heart” offers us a scaffold around which to build a college-in-prison program that emphasizes this kind of formation. The schooled heart is in a constant and ever-broadening search for wisdom. This conception of wisdom provides incarcerated students with a North Star toward which they can navigate as their intellect wrestles with competing ideas, formulations, and claims for what constitutes Truth. Wisdom as embodied (incarnated) in Christ provides an exemplar for a student’s moral education -— for his formation. And for moral education to be effective, Jeffrey reminds us, the teacher must be a touchstone — an exemplar.

It takes much more than a properly ordered curriculum to develop the schooled heart. Jeffrey asserts that the schooled heart cannot be developed alone. Its formation requires a community — a college (in the oldest meaning of the term) — in the same sense that the apostles served as a college with Christ as the professor.

The schooled heart resides in the chest of someone who has become something different.

Why is college-in-prison good? Because it helps incarcerated people be different. And as good as doing is, the schooled heart of someone whose college education has formed him to be different is even better — and far more important.

HWPEP Welcomes Three New Members to the Circle of Advisors

The Hope-Western Prison Education Program is pleased to welcome three new members to its Circle of Advisors.

The Circle of Advisors meets regularly with the program’s leadership and serves as a consultative group to help devise and review strategies to help the HWPEP accomplish its goals and purposes. Circle of Advisors members support the missions of Hope College and Western Theological Seminary and commit to advancing the program’s goals:

  • Extending the Hope College and Western Theological Seminary missions to those living in incarcerated environments.
  • Transforming the hearts and minds of prisoners and all involved in the program, thereby enlarging their imaginations for purposeful living as flourishing, beloved children of God made in God’s image and likeness.
  • Easing the burden to the community by reducing recidivism, lowering tax burdens associated with the corrections system, and improving the safety of and culture for prisoners and prison staff.
  • Bringing together persons of good will from a variety of political, ideological and theological perspectives.

CoA members contribute their time, talent, and treasure to the HWPEP, and use their social capital to encourage friends, family, and colleagues to do likewise. Here are the three newest members of the Circle of Advisors:

Leanne Van Dyk. Leanne served as the academic dean at WTS before serving as president of Columbia Theological Seminary in Atlanta. She retired from Columbia and moved back to Holland in 2022. She taught a religion course at the prison this Fall, and has been very engaged in HWPEP as a result of her experience.

Sean Sword. Sean was in HWPEP’s first non-credit pilot program in 2019 when he he was incarcerated at Muskegon Correctional Facility. Before HWPEP launched the degree-granting phase of its program, Sean was admitted to the Calvin Prison Initiative, has since been released from prison, and is finishing his BA on Calvin’s main campus. Sean has served for two years as a member of the HWPEP Admissions Committee.

Jim Boerigter. Jim and his family have emerged as important contributors to HWPEP. He has offered informal advice to the Leadership Team, been to the prison to meet the students, and is an eager advocate of what HWPEP is trying to accomplish. Jim is an attorney at Kreis Enderle in Portage. He serves on the Board of Directors of Legal Aid of Western Michigan. Read more about Jim here.

Leanne, Sean, and Jim join existing Circle of Advisors members Phil Miller, George Julius, Bill Wörtz, Mary Bauman, and Steve Spoelhof.

How Does Teaching in Prison Help Main Campus Students?

The principal object of concern for the Hope-Western Prison Education Program is the educational and formational transformation of its students. College has a terrific impact on these students. The spillover effects on the non-enrolled residents of the prison and those that work at the facility are notable.

But what about traditional students who study on Hope College‘s and Western Theological Seminary‘s main campuses? How are they advantaged by a program that educates their incarcerated peers on a campus 45 minutes north of Holland? Consider the experience of these main campus students.

Will Cooke

In an effort to provide HWPEP students with positive role models that serve to expand their imaginations, Hope College student Will Cooke developed a vocational exemplar poster series. These posters tell the stories of eight formerly incarcerated college graduates who can point to how their college education has transformed their lives and provided a platform for purposeful contributions to their communities. HWPEP has offered these posters to other college-in-prison programs for use in their classrooms. Here’s what Will has to say about this experience:

It was a privilege getting to interview these gentlemen for the Hope-Western Prison Education Program. When we began, our intentions were to create a series of posters containing the stories of formerly incarcerated men who, through education, are successfully living out their vocations. I interviewed eight men who, after incarceration, went on to work in an impressive range of fields, including academia, politics, construction, social work, prison ministry and journalism. I was humbled by the stories of these men. The intensity and passion they display in living out their vocations is a wonderful thing to behold. It gave me hope while also forcing me to look at all the blessings in my own life and how much I take for granted. The interviews were edifying for me and created some friendships that I expect to last long into the future.

Before becoming involved with the prison program I had not given the reality of incarcerated life much consideration. Through talking to these men, I realized the incredible fruitfulness of investing in our prisoners through college education. It is amazing what people can do when they are treated like humans and have their own dignity affirmed. Being given an education can be such an important step in realizing your value as a person in an environment that does its best to make you forget what you are. I was amazed at the incredible results prison education has yielded; there is so much more that can be done. I am honored to have been of service and I hope that the posters will serve as a source of hope.

Sara Zallar

Sara is a third-year Master of Divinity student at WTS. Her first exposure to HWPEP was as a teaching assistant for the Hebrew course offered at Muskegon Correctional Facility by Professors Travis West and Pam Bush. She and her fellow TA — Nicole “Z” Maye — helped mark HWPEP student papers, review projects, and create videos to help the students learn grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation. Sara then took on the role of intern with HWPEP in partial fulfillment of the experiential requirement for her MDiv. This role gave her access to HWPEP leadership team meetings in addition to working with Pam Bush, Amy Piescer, and Ann McKnight in both Homeroom Peer Groups and the Communicating with Courage and Compassion course. So impressed were we by Sara’s talent, drive, and commitment to HWPEP that we hired her to serve as the program’s Administrative Assistant. Sara’s own words point to the terrific impact HWPEP has on Holland-based students:

My involvement in the Hope-Western Prison Education Program has been an invaluable part of my experience as a Western Theological Seminary student. Serving as a teaching assistant in the classroom opened space for me to not only facilitate learning, but also to learn from the incarcerated students — an opportunity of reciprocity that is a gift both in life and especially ministry. Through my internship experience on the HWPEP leadership team and my encounters in Homeroom at Muskegon Correctional Facility I have been invited to explore dynamics of being community. The students at MCF — as well as my colleagues — have been models of what it means to be in community, show hospitality, be present to what is, and focus on what is most important. I often tell people how lucky I am to be what I call a “learning leader”. I am grateful for the continuous opportunities to learn and grow in the HWPEP program!

Ayden Albright

Hope College student Ayden Albright and his friends have secured recognition as an official Hope College student organization for the Hope Advocates for Prison Education (HAPE). HAPE’s mission is to “advocate for education in prison and end the prison label stigma.” Though the organization is still new, Ayden and his peers have been busy with such activities as sponsoring a presentation about HWPEP at the college’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day Leadership Summit. We congratulate the HAPE leadership for its diligence in obtaining official student organization status, and we look forward to working with them on matters of mutual interest.

Kate Kalthoff and Helen Weston

Hope College Student Congress presidents Helen Weston (2022-2023) and Kate Kalthoff (2023-2024) have worked tirelessly to connect main campus student government with the HWPEP students at Muskegon Correctional Facility. Under Helen’s leadership Student Congress produced a monthly newsletter — Glimpse of Hope — that brought HWPEP students the latest in main campus news. Under Kate’s leadership Student Congress has proposed a structure for a MCF branch that would involve HWPEP students in both MCF and main campus student governance. Helen graduated in 2023 and is now a policy analyst for the Nolan Center for Justice with a focus on criminal justice initiatives. In her role she assists the center in research and advocacy efforts that pursue public safety, government accountability, and the recognition of human dignity.

Chapel Worship

Hope College and WTS students have interacted with HWPEP students through shared chapel services. Though these encountered were asynchronous and conducted via video, it was clear that the main campus students were deeply impacted by the chance to worship with their incarcerated peers. And vice-versa.

What’s Next?

Through the leadership of HWPEP Co-Director David Stubbs, WTS will soon launch a Graduate Certificate in Restorative Justice. This graduate level program offered to WTS students lays a foundation for restorative justice ministries and restorative practices in the context of the Christian faith. Students will deepen their knowledge of biblical and theological dimensions of restorative justice, restorative practices, and practical aspects of putting the gospel into action. This program is especially intended for those whose vocation has prophetic and social dimensions or whose vocation may involve work in criminal justice systems.

The Certificate Program includes taking integrated “inside-outside” classes at the Muskegon Correctional Facility, where students will learn in a classroom integrated with both “inside” students (incarcerated students in the HWPEP) and “outside” students (WTS students). Learning about restorative justice and restorative justice practices in an integrated classroom in a prison where many intersecting justice issues are present is a rare and formative opportunity.

It would be easy and understandable to think that college-in-prison is only for incarcerated students. But its impact is so much wider, positively impacting the lives of non-enrolled incarcerated peers, corrections staff, and faculty. And it turns out that providing incarcerated students with a college education is good for main campus students, too.

Advent in Prison?

Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.

Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,

    and cry to her

that her warfare is ended,

    that her iniquity is pardoned,

that she has received from the Lord’s hand

    double for all her sins.

A voice cries:

“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord;

    make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

Every valley shall be lifted up,

    and every mountain and hill be made low;

the uneven ground shall become level,

    and the rough places a plain.

And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,

    and all flesh shall see it together,

    for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
 

A voice says, “Cry!”

    And I said,“What shall I cry?”

All flesh is grass,

    and all its beauty is like the flower of the field.

The grass withers, the flower fades

    when the breath of the Lord blows on it;

    surely the people are grass.

The grass withers, the flower fades,

    but the word of our God will stand forever.
 

Go on up to a high mountain,

    O Zion, herald of good news;

lift up your voice with strength,

    O Jerusalem, herald of good news;

    lift it up, fear not;

say to the cities of Judah,

    “Behold your God!”

Behold, the Lord God comes with might,

    and his arm rules for him;

behold, his reward is with him,

    and his recompense before him.

He will tend his flock like a shepherd;

    he will gather the lambs in his arms;

he will carry them in his bosom,

    and gently lead those that are with young. (IS 40:1-11)

The students of the Hope-Western Prison Education Program at Muskegon Correctional Facility file into the classroom. The walk across The Yard is an exercise in self-control as they absorb the barbs of others, their backpacks and textbooks targets of derision. 
 

“Who do they think they are?”
 

Their state-issued clothing is worn and patched and hangs loosely on their bodies. Their environment is a crooked place.
 

A desert

           A shadow-filled valley

                       A place of uneven ground

The world offers them no comfort. 

And yet, smiles and rumors of smiles fill the classroom. Their professors break open
 

Their shackled imaginations

            Their trauma-twisted lives

                         Their imprisoned hearts


And some, perhaps many, begin to see themselves as God’s. As made in God’s image, and by God’s love. And in God they are

Gathered

            Shepherded

                         Changed

Forever. Living witnesses to Advent. And the glory of the Lord is revealed anew.

Mathematics Can Help Incarcerated Students Flourish Too

“Open your math textbook to page 25 and try solving problem #3.”

That’s how I expected Professor David Austin might begin the Hope-Western Prison Education Program’s first-ever mathematics course. Instead, he welcomed the students warmly in his trademark soft, gentle voice. And then he asked the students to play a game with each other. And then another. And then a third. The students — grown men nervous about school and really nervous about math — were laughing. And helping each other. And discussing possible solutions. And enjoying each other.

It turns out that these games required mathematical thinking. HWPEP students — many of whom have been incarcerated for decades — were being taught to think mathematically. And they were also being taught to believe in themselves. For many, school was part of their traumatic pasts. They were used to hearing one of two messages during their childhood school years. Either “You’re not smart enough to succeed. You’re a disappointment” or “You don’t apply yourself. You’re a disappointment.” School was an occasion of shame.

In Professor David Austin’s mathematics class all of that was being turned on its head. Students were not only learning that they could think mathematically, but that they were able college students. They were not — are not — disappointments.

Part of Professor Austin’s brilliance in teaching the students as he did was the selection of his textbook. Francis Su’s Mathematics for Human Flourishing is about math, yes, but the chapters are titled in pretty surprising ways:

Exploration

Community

Meaning

Justice

Francis Su, Kenyan (a Cohort 1 student), and David Austin

Su’s text includes reflections on mathematics from Christopher Jackson, a self-taught mathematician serving a 30+ year sentence in a Federal prison. The two of them combine to assert the proposition that mathematics is in the service of human flourishing, and that virtue — and not merely calculation — lies at the heart of what mathematics is for.

Francis Su visited the HWPEP students at Muskegon Correctional Facility on October 11, 2023. The students were so excited to meet the author of their textbook. Su began his talk with a card trick that seemed like magic but was really a proof of a simple mathematical concept that drew the students in and had them fully engaged in his thesis — that there are “mathematical virtues” and these virtues help people flourish. “Math,” Su asserted, “helps us see the unseen patterns of the world.”

As the questions flew at Su from the students, he reminded them that struggling with hard mathematical problems develops hope because it builds confidence that difficult things can be accomplished. Math builds grit. The virtue of persistence is strengthened through math. “The ability to say I see something I don’t understand is a mathematical virtue,” Su reminded them.

Positive psychologist Martin Seligman asserts that human flourishing encompasses five dimensions:

  • Positive emotions
  • Engagement
  • Relationships
  • Meaning
  • Accomplishments

It turns out that the study of mathematics can contribute to each of these dimensions. And it turns out that mathematics can help incarcerated students flourish too. Just ask an HWPEP student.

A Grateful Student Speaks

The Hope-Western Prison Education Program relies on the generosity and goodwill of hundreds of people. Most have never met the students they support. Prisons are often located far from public view, and visiting someone in prison is fraught with bureaucratic challenges. Incarcerated people are largely invisible to most of us.

Our students are fully aware that their education is the product of not only their own hard work, but the prayers and financial contributions of many people. And they are grateful. One student encouraged me to share the following tribute he titled “Donations, More Than Money.”

Greetings Donors,

It is my goal in composing this letter to enlighten you on what your donations provide for students in the Hope-Western Prison Education Program.

On may 9, 2023 around 12:45 PM during the HWPEP Donor Event, a prison official looked me sternly in the eye and motioned for me to come to him. Initially I thought to myself, “What did I do?” As I moved gingerly toward him, he asked me if I would take a group of HWPEP supporters on a tour of the school building. With a sigh of relief and a smile plastered across my face I replied “Absolutely.”

As the four of us — accompanied by one staff member — strolled through different spaces of the school building where HWPEP classes occur, questions, comments, and responses began to soar in the air like paper spitballs inside a grade school classroom. Impressed by the interaction and quality questions from donors, I thought to myself: “These people are really into this program.”

Now allow me to articulate what your donations exemplify. They are like organ donors who risk their lives to save another’s. Submitting to the incisions of scalpels in the hands of doctors, organ donors are opened up in order to have a piece of themselves removed and transferred to someone else. In like manner, you opened up yourselves, allowing compassion to be transferred, consideration removed from your minds, and charity given from your hearts for the noble purpose of transplanting the vital organ of education into the minds, hearts, and lives of men in the Hope-Western Prison Education Program.

It has been said that an aim for education is to awaken the best part of a person’s soul (Plato, Republic). Whenever you make a donation to HWPEP, the highest return on your investment is a soul that has been awakened to the best part of itself. Speaking from personal experience, this awakening not only impacts the soul of the student, but it ripples out, impacting the lives of prison staff, cellmates, family, and friends you may never meet. Students at HWPEP are inspired by your generosity, and determined to succeed not only as students, but as members of humanity equipped to make lasting change.

In one HWPEP course, students were exposed to the following thought: “The guarantee in life is that we are going to suffer. What is not guaranteed is how we will respond, whether we let this suffering embitter or ennoble us. This is our choice.” Your contributions to HWPEP expose students to such noteworthy thoughts that empower them to know they are not helpless nor inadequate when it comes to how they respond to various situations in their lives.

In closing, students at HWPEP are inspired by your generosity and determined to succeed not only as students, but as members of humanity equipped to make lasting change.

Small vs Big

The Hope-Western Prison Education Program has made terrific strides since launching the degree-granting phase of the program in August 2021. The program’s first two cohorts are succeeding marvelously as college students. Prospective students for the Third Cohort are now applying to begin their college education in July. We’re very well begun in reaching our goal of four cohorts comprising a total of 80 students.

Eighty students? That’s not very many, you may think. If the transformative power of the combined energies of Hope College and Western Theological Seminary are good for 80 students, why not for 160 students? Why not for 300? Or 1,000?

When it comes to good things, it seems that we’re all from Texas. Big is best. Big houses, big meals, big plans, big big big big. We scoff at small things, small thinking. Small is presumed to be insufficiently visionary and therefore pedestrian and common. Small things are a dime a dozen, we think. Meh.

Courtesy of TED

But what if education — especially education in prison — is different? What if all education is formation, and formation is best accomplished through personal relationships? What if people who have been dehumanized for most of their lives need both the information provided by a college education and the formation provided by professors who — unlike most outsiders who come into the prison — keep coming back? Keep pouring into them. Keep showing them a better way for their lives. Keep pointing them toward something higher. Something better. If a college education in prison requires a face-to-face encounter with people who can model what human flourishing looks like, then smaller is better. In a counterintuitive way, small scales.

While the Hope-Western Prison Education Program understands itself, its students, and its context well enough to plan for targeted, limited growth, there are ways in which we advocate for scaling up and going bigger:

  • HWPEP students are agents of scale in spreading their personal transformations throughout the 1,200-person prison in which they reside. They are models for other incarcerated peers. And our focus on admitting people with long, indeterminate, or life sentences creates the possibility of scaling because these are the people who will remain in prison to do the modeling. The power of modeling scales.
  • Institutions who do their best work when they emphasize the formative power of education can help scale by partnering together to encourage and model what’s best in college-in-prison. That’s why HWPEP has been working with eight other Michigan colleges and universities who offer or plan to offer degrees in Michigan prisons to form the Michigan Consortium for Higher Education. MiCHEP can bring scale to the idea that educating incarcerated people makes sense for them, their families, their communities, the corrections community, and the state. The power of partnership scales.
  • Governments can help scale the good news of college-in-prison through commonsense public policy. The Federal government’s FAFSA Simplification Act, which restores access to Pell Grants for people in prison, will make it possible for thousands to access higher education. HWPEP is very pleased with our progress in moving toward the day when Pell Grants will cover the lion’s share of the cost of our students’ education, leaving our fundraising for closing the gap and providing the co-curricular opportunities that will move their educational experiences closer to what happens on the Holland campus. The power of public policy oriented toward the common good scales.

Is the Hope-Western Prison Education Program big or small? Perhaps it’s a small program built on a big idea. Perhaps it’s a small program that scales big. Really big.

Courtesy Harvard Business Review

Bruised Reeds, Smoldering Wicks

The Hope-Western Prison Education Program’s fall semester just concluded. Our 23 students are taking a well-deserved break from their studies, though the Cohort 1 fellows all promised to practice their Hebrew so they didn’t begin Hebrew II in January rusty from disuse.

Do you know what יוֹנָה means? Thanks to professors Travis West, Pam Bush, and Miranda Craig our Cohort 1 students know what it means, and much, much more.

The end of one semester signals a time of preparation for the next. We recently engaged in a three-day orientation for spring and summer professors. Among the topics covered included a new emphasis on trauma, how it is experienced by people in various circumstances, and how it is commonly manifested by incarcerated people. We want our professors to teach and our students to learn with a trauma-informed and resilience-focussed mindset.

“The experience of trauma among people involved with the criminal justice system is so prevalent that it is now considered a universal experience.”

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration

People who teach in prison are reminded daily that their students have been subjected to a host of traumatic experiences throughout their lives. But we can also see wonderful transformations in these men — transformations that demonstrate their ability to become more resilient people — even in the face of the steady drip of traumatizing experiences that characterize life in prison.

Courtesy of Starr Commonwealth

What does any of this have to do with the conclusion of the Advent season and the incarnation of the Lord? During Advent Isaiah reminds us that A bruised reed He will not break and a smoldering wick He will not extinguish; He will faithfully bring forth justice (IS 42:3). A bruised reed. A smoldering wick.

Who are the bruised reeds and smoldering wicks among us?

The poor. Poverty is a leading source of trauma.

The neglected. Neglect is a strong predictor of criminal behavior.

The refugee. Leaving behind everything you know is traumatizing.

The abused. Most incarcerated people have been abused.

It’s comfortable, reassuring, and hopeful to remember Christ as a child in a peaceful manger scene on a star-filled night with hosanna-ing angels. But as we do so, let us also remember that Jesus’ life and the lives of our students aren’t so dissimilar.

Courtesy of Freepik

Jesus was born in a barn without the material goods we’re accustomed to. Our students are impoverished.

Jesus was an outcast, abandoned by his friends in his time of greatest need. Our students are cut off from the world.

Jesus was a refugee, forced to flee his country to save his life. Modern refugees are regularly and systematically incarcerated.

Jesus was beaten, spit upon, stripped, and then murdered. Our students bear the physical scars of terrible wounds.

Our students are bruised reeds and smoldering wicks. But they are learning to become resilient. They are slowly but surely being re-incarnated as New Creatures.

Please pray for them this Christmas.

Membership

I’ve sometimes wondered why the incarcerated students of the Hope-Western Prison Education Program are so remarkably committed to their college studies. Anyone who has ever spoken with them can’t help but come away from the conversation deeply impressed by their passion for learning. This overwhelming sense of enthusiasm is perhaps most acutely felt by their professors, who are commonly changed in fundamental, surprising ways by the experience.

Courtesy of Sydney Huizenga

Perhaps HWPEP students are simply older and more mature than traditional students. People in the forties and fifties have a greater trove of experiences that help them put their life circumstances into perspective than the average 18-22 year-old college student does. Perhaps older, incarcerated students see the value in their college education in ways that traditional college students will eventually recognize, but not just yet.

Or it could be that HWPEP students experience a newfound sense of self-efficacy as a result of their college-going. For many, their lives have been like arid deserts — places where truth, beauty, and goodness are not completely absent, but can be harder to find. Maybe learning that they are good at something that is true, good, and beautiful is why they blossom with such fecundity.

But increasingly I wonder if their enthusiasm — their joy — is based on something else — a sense of belonging. A sense of membership. Many HWPEP students have lived the better part of their lives without a well-formed vision of the future — educational or otherwise. College has been, at best, a hazy, dimly understood theory outside their experience or that of their families. To quote Kant, “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.” The crooked timber of HWPEP students is straightening, and beautifully. Kant would be impressed.

In his wonderful Port William stories Wendell Berry describes those living and working and dying among the Kentucky hills hard by the Ohio River as a “membership.” He crafts their lives in ways that gives us the impression that the people of that membership belong to each other. And it is in that belonging that they find and embody love — of each other and themselves.

“We are members of each other…The difference ain’t in who is a member and who is not, but in who knows it and who don’t.”

Burley Coulter – The Wild Birds

As Reinhold Niebuhr reminds us “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love.” And love is discovered by membership.

As we continue through the early years of the Hope-Western Prison Education Program we give thanks for the membership it offers for our students. And for the marvelous ways that membership is making all the difference in their lives — for now and for eternity.