Why did Johnny Cash perform in prisons?

During his August 2022 installation Mass as bishop of Winona-Rochester, MN, Bishop Robert Barron made reference to an interview with Johnny Cash, during which he was asked why he performed in prisons. Cash responded by citing two reasons. First, he said, in prisoners he found his most enthusiastic audiences. Second, he was a Christian.

Johnny Cash at Folsom State Prison ((Jim Marshall/Jim Marshall Photography LLC /Reel Art Press)

Why do professors at Hope College and Western Theological Seminary teach college courses to men at Muskegon Correctional Facility? In part, it’s because the students of the Hope-Western Prison Education Program are a VERY enthusiastic audience. While our regard for our students on our main campus in Holland is nearly boundless, our incarcerated HWPEP students in Muskegon are incredibly dedicated to their intellectual, social, and spiritual formation. While HWPEP is as rigorous as the B.A. degree program on the main campus, we have to be careful about how much work we assign our incarcerated students, for whatever we assign will be diligently and faithfully engaged. By each student. Every time.

Why do professors at Hope College and Western Theological Seminary teach college courses to men at Muskegon Correctional Facility? In part, it’s because we’re Christians. Teaching our students there requires that we visit them there. And visiting the imprisoned is Good News — for them and for us.

Why do we teach in prison? Just ask Johnny Cash.

Johnny Cash performs at San Quentin Prison

Stand and Deliver

Early next month I’ll begin teaching a new course to the combined first and second cohorts of Hope-Western Prison Education Program students at Muskegon Correctional Facility. The first cohort students are evolving into fine college students — their mean GPA is 3.77 — but for the second cohort students this will be their first college course. For many of them, this will be the first formal education they’ve experienced in years, or even decades. For them, this will be a big moment.

And while I’ve been recruiting, orienting, and encouraging other professors in their teaching in the prison for HWPEP, this will be my first experience teaching incarcerated students. What has been theoretical is now about to become concrete and tangible. This will be a big moment for me as well.

Some of the reading for First-Year Seminar

The course is First-Year Seminar: Integrating Faith, Leadership, and Service. Funded by a grant from NetVUE, First-Year Seminar will eventually be paired with a Senior Seminar taken in the students’ last year in college. These courses serve as “bookends” to help students understand college ways of learning and knowing, what it means to be called to a vocation, and how human beings understand truth through the lens of worldview. HWPEP students will wrestle with the following questions in their First-Year Seminar:

What is faith?
What is leadership?
What is service?
How can I succeed in college?
What is research, and how can I engage in it?
What is my vocation? To what am I called?

Students will read and write every day for two months. They will develop a service project proposal with other members of their class. They will engage in daily discussions in a seminar style. They — and I — will have to stand and deliver, together.

Pray for us.

Welcome Amy Piescer

Please join the students, faculty, and staff of the Hope-Western Prison Education Program in welcoming Amy Piescer, who began work last week as HWPEP’s first Operations Coordinator.

Raised in Japan, Amy recently graduated with a Bachelor’s in Social Work and a major in Psychology from Calvin University, where she interned with the Calvin Prison Initiative (CPI). This experience provided a broad picture of the work that goes into a higher education program in prison. She also assisted in facilitating the first inside-out class in the history of the program. Ten students from the Calvin Knollcrest campus went to the Richard A. Handlon Correctional Facility once a week to participate in a class with the CPI students. Amy helped plan CPI’s long-awaited graduation that took place on Monday, May 9th, 2022, when the cohorts of 2020, 2021, and 2022 were honored.

“​When I first heard about the Hope-Western Prison Education Program, I was thrilled to see another pair of partnering institutions that believed in the power of education enough to transform the lives of individuals who are incarcerated,” Amy remarked during her interview.

As the Operations Coordinator for HWPEP, Amy will support student success by managing the admissions process and working with instructional staff for the program. She will maintain regular communication with the staff at Muskegon Correctional Facility and plan annual events such as commencement, tours, and events for family and friends. She will also manage the HWPEP office and work with both Hope College and Western Theological Seminary in marketing and external communications for the program.

Welcome Amy!

New Creations


On this Saturday morning before Easter I stare out of my window at the weak Eastern light that begins to illumine the world and give thanks for the impending joy of new creation which is — even now — rising and about to be revealed. The scriptures for the Easter Vigil which will conclude this day speak of new creation made possible by yesterday’s Great Sacrifice. For 40 days we have been unable to whisper “alleluia” but tonight it will fill our mouths leaving room for little else. New creation is coming, and soon.

And so it is for the students of the Hope-Western Prison Education Program. They too are becoming New Creations. Education is changing them. Once thought beyond redemption, through the power of the Holy Spirit their professors are infusing them with hope and a vision of the future where good things are possible. After a lifetime of serial silences they are becoming full-throated alleluias. New creations.

The Wisdom of 3000 Years

Libraries are repositories of all that is known and has been known for 3,000 years. They are places — physical structures — containing the written words of millenia. But they are also programs dedicated to connecting those words with eager learners. How do the eager learners of the Hope-Western Prison Education Program incarcerated in Muskegon Correctional Facility gain access to this trove? Here’s how:

  • Gather a wonderful team of Van Wylen and Cook library professionalsprofessionals dedicated to the proposition that libraries should “Offer a welcoming and inclusive environment that affirms the dignity of all persons as bearers of God’s image and where the full humanity of all may flourish.”
  • Creatively discern how to upload the Hope College and Western Theological Seminary libraries’ catalogs of more than 500,000 books and 50,000 journals onto two dedicated laptops.
  • Teach students how to conduct research by familiarizing them with information literacy concepts like accessing, evaluation, and use of information.
  • Develop a fulfillment system that allows HWPEP students to search for library materials, write their requests on a form delivered to Van Wylen Library by their professors, and deliver books to the prison for the students’ use in their courses.

Delivering the wisdom of 3,000 years to incarcerated students? No problem.

(Photo by Giammarco on Unsplash)

Remarkable Stories From B-104

(adjective) worthy of attention; striking.

Room B-104 is located in Muskegon Correctional Facility’s school building. It is the home of the Hope-Western Prison Education Program.

Remarkable things happen there.

Technically this column should be retitled “Remarkable Stories from LTA 1 and 2.” Prison officials reassigned the Hope-Western Prison Education Program to new digs at Muskegon Correctional Facility. New rooms, same remarkable stories…

During the Summer II 2022 academic term the Cohort 1 and Cohort 2 students have been learning, studying, discussing, writing, and growing together for the past month as they engage their First Year Seminar course. Their engagement with authors such as Martin Luther King Jr, Samuel Wells, James Davidson Hunter, Parker Palmer, and the biblical authors of 1 Samuel and Jeremiah are helping form their imaginations for how faith, leadership, and service intersect. Having engaged this intersection, what do they have to say about their college education? Here are a few excerpts from a recent writing assignment:

There are times when I feel overwhelmed and stressed out, but I believe my experiences are an investment in my future!

This has been a life-changing event in my life. It has had its challenges but I am so grateful for this opportunity. It is my hope that all men who get this opportunity will give their all to this exciting journey.

My college education has meant to me that I am worthy. It has meant that I can be productive in an environment that by its very design is intended to produce failure. My college education has freed my mind in ways I could never have imagined.

Hope College and Western Theological Seminary have changed my perspective, expectations, and my life. The professors have exposed me to a lot of thought-provoking information that has broken the levy of locked potential within me. I am experiencing the best time of my life.


Cody Scanlan/Holland Sentinel

On Wednesday, January 12 the Hope College men’s basketball team defeated arch-rival Calvin University, 78-65. The next morning we walked into B-104 at Muskegon Correctional Facility for the first day of English 113: Expository Writing. How were we greeted by 12 incarcerated men?

Hey! We won last night!

Just another day of Hope students supporting their college.


On Wednesday, September 22, 2021 Hope-Western Prison Education professors and teaching assistants re-entered Muskegon Correctional Facility for the first time in nearly two years. Our team walked across the prison yard, entered the school building, made its way down the hallway, and crossed the threshold of Room B-104 to the enthusiastic – even joyful – exclamations of the HWPEP students. Handshakes and warm greetings were shared all around. It felt like a family reunion.

Our assignments kept us going through COVID. HWPEP is like a purifying fire.

HWPEP student

The two-hour session began with a worship service organized by WTS student Miranda Craig. Professor Pam Bush taught the students a short prayer of praise and thanksgiving in sung Hebrew. And then each student reflected on how his learning has been impacted by the pandemic, and how he was feeling about beginning the journey toward his Bachelor’s degree. Here is a sampling of what the students had to say:

The clear bookbag you gave us is like carrying the Olympic torch!

When I saw the news that the program was approved I thought “All is right is with the world. Let’s go!”

Six months ago I didn’t know where my life was or where it was going. Now I’m invigorated.

I can’t wait to call my mother to tell her I learned how to pray in Hebrew.

It feels good to be loved. I’m so happy you’re back.

We’re trailblazers. We’re all involved in serving our community in some way. We’re plowing the field. We’re all supporting each other and pulling each other along.

Our assignments kept us going through COVID. HWPEP is like a purifying fire.



During the summer of 2021 the COVID pandemic forced the Michigan Department of Corrections to close prisons to visitors, volunteers, and everyone else who did not absolutely have to come to the prison. This forced the HWPEP leadership to get creative with ways to keep its students intellectually engaged (to say nothing of spiritually encouraged). We settled on the idea of a book club. We sent each student two books with instructions for how to organize and run a book discussion.

We also asked the students to send us feedback on each book and the process they engaged in thinking together about the texts. We received many inspired and inspiring reports. Here’s an example:

“Many of us [in the HWPEP] are searching for our own kind of freedom. Some of us may never again step foot outside a prison setting. Yet, we have all still made the choice to act on our hopes and dreams, wherever this journey leads us. And for me, that’s a special kind of freedom – the ability and willingness to choose something other than the life I’ve known.”



Source: Amazon.com

Asked for his impressions about tackling Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics in only one week, a student responded “I didn’t understand it at all the first time I read it. The second time was equally difficult. I mean, it was like reading a foreign language. The third time I began to see some of the elements of Aristotle’s philosophy beginning to gel. Now that I’ve read it four times I can see how his ideas connect to Augustine, Aquinas, and Plato.”

All of his classmates nodded in agreement, as if they too had read Aristotle four times in one week.


“Being With” or “Doing For”

As we enter the last week of the semester, the HWPEP students at Muskegon Correctional Facility are hard at work writing end-of-term papers and preparing for their final exam in Professor David Stubbs’ Faith Seeking Understanding course. A COVID outbreak in the students’ living unit forced us to deliver the course in a distanced manner for six weeks. Two weeks ago we were able to go back into the facility to work with the students in a face-to-face manner. And being in the classroom with the men, talking with them, discussing their schoolwork, and listening to the ways they are processing their college experience is a gift for us.

A gift for us? But isn’t it our professors and teaching assistants who are doing something for these men? During this Advent season, perhaps we should consider how “being with” is often a greater service than “doing for.” As we prepare for the Incarnation at Christmas let’s consider how visiting the prisoner is good for us too.

You make it possible for Hope and WTS to “be with” our HWPEP students. You make it possible for Hope and WTS to be a faithful presence in their lives. Thank you.

Education or Ministry?

Is the Hope-Western Prison Education Program primarily oriented toward education? Or is it more aligned with ministry? The program is an accredited academic program leading to a Bachelor’s degree. It is intellectually rigorous, oriented to the liberal arts, and is therefore broad in its design while also providing depth of study in a major area of academic focus: Faith, Leadership, and Service.

Source: University of Notre Dame

But people of good will often refer to it as a ministry. It isn’t uncommon for students, professors, administrators, and supporters to ask us “How’s the prison ministry going?

Collegiate education is a powerful resource for reducing violence and making prison less punitive

Michael Hallett and Byron Johnson

The borderlands between “education” and “ministry” are sometimes blurry. Neither Hope College nor Western Theological Seminary are churches primarily oriented toward ministry, but are instead academic institutions concerned with educating students. But it’s also true that both engage in ministry, and are concerned with whole-person educational and spiritual formation. This is true not only in Holland, but also at the Muskegon Correctional Facility.

To place this question in context, take a look at Byron Johnson and Michael Hallett’s excellent article, A Church Without Walls, Behind Walls: How Evangelicals Are Transforming American Prisons.

Finding Their Bearings

Bernd Fiedler, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

New college students the world over begin their undergraduate studies by spending a few days being oriented to the academic life by faculty, staff, and more experienced students. The Hope-Western Prison Education Program students at Muskegon Correctional Facility are no different. There won’t be the usual campus tours or “getting to know you” games common to the 18-year old crowd. And the HWPEP orientation will be spread over three months instead of three days. But many of the things traditional undergrads need to find their bearings are shared by HWPEP’s incarcerated students. Here is a rundown of the what, why, and who of the HWPEP orientation:

Why Go To College?Receive affirmation, inspiration, motivation, and adviceDr. Fred Johnson
The Degree ProgramUnderstand the elements of the BA in Faith, Leadership, and ServiceDr. Richard Ray
ResearchLearn to do research effectively and responsiblyKelly Jacobsma and Jessica Hronchek
The Prison ContextUnderstand how higher education and prison life intersect, hear the hopes of prison officialsMichigan Department of Corrections Officials
WritingPrepare to write wellKatlyn DeVries
CommunityLearn in communityDrs. Curtis Gruenler and Dennis Feaster
Study SkillsRead, discuss, and take notes and tests successfullyDr. David Escobar Arcay
What is
Liberal Arts
Explore the liberal arts in the context of the Christian faith Presidents Matthew Scogin and Felix Theonugraha, Dean Sandra Visser