Walking across a prison yard for the first time isn’t exactly the most comfortable experience. At least, it wasn’t for me. Until I visited the Hope-Western Prison Education Program a few months ago, the closest I’d been to the inside of a prison was watching Shawshank Redemption

There’s the security checkpoints, and the panic button gets clipped to your belt, and then the door opens and you step into the prison yard. You’re not alone, though: there are armed guards and prisoners in jumpsuits strolling along the paths. And, I was with a handful of other people from the Hope-Western Prison Education Program.

We walked across the yard, saying hello to a few of the men along the way to the building that housed our classrooms, which, aside from the students’ wardrobe (state-issued blues) and age (average: upper-40s), looked remarkably like any other classroom I’ve been in. 

As we waited for class to begin, though, I noticed one distinct difference between this and my own college experience: I don’t know that I’ve ever been welcomed anywhere (much less to class) with the friendliness and hospitality that these students extended to me. Handshakes and hellos, laughter and smiles, introductions and  “Welcome!” and “I’m glad you’re here!” and “It’s great to meet you.” Within just a few minutes, my anxiety had disappeared and I was entirely at ease.

I was visiting during HWPEP’s Homeroom, a co-curricular formation program designed to help students process their learning, develop community, and put their education in touch with their faith. The program was broken into three hour-long sections. 

In the first, we broke into small groups for facilitated discussions about the novel Homegoing, which was an optional activity organized as part of The Big Read. With the first question — “We’re familiar with the idea of ‘homecoming.’ Why do you think the author chose ‘homegoing’ for the title? — the discussion kicked off, and it didn’t let up for 60 minutes. The students talked about what it means for a place to be a home, discussed whether they considered the Muskegon Correctional Facility to be their home (many will never know another home again), and shared memories of their homes of origin.

In the second hour, we shared a guided meditation on a passage of scripture and paired off to talk through various prompts. As with the first hour, I was impressed with the students’ honesty, vulnerability, intelligence, humor, and engagement.

The third hour was set aside for me to talk to a couple of men who were in their third year of the program. When one asked me if I’d ever read Les Miserables, I laughed and told him no. “That’s a cinder block of a book,” I said. It’s his favorite novel; he told me why he fell in love with it, and then mentioned that he had the opportunity to read it in the original French while learning the language in prison. At some point during our conversation, he quoted Shakespeare at length — not just a line or two, but a whole passage — and, for not the first time during my visit, I could only shake my head and laugh and wonder, “Who are these students?”

By the time I left, every bit of discomfort and hesitation had dissolved in the face of the hospitality these men offered. And something else had happened, too: In just a few short hours, I had changed. I’d stopped thinking of these men as “prisoners” or even as “students” but as men — and, thanks be to God, as men more like me than not. 

HWPEP co-director Richard Ray wasn’t surprised by the change: “It’s a reasonable conclusion — unexamined but reasonable — that people think we’re just doing this for the incarcerated students at the prison, but there are tons of other people that are advantaged by this,” Ray said. “Main campus students and professors are among those.”

Although I’m neither a professor nor a student, I can agree: The short time I spent with the men in the Hope-Western Prison Education Program won’t soon leave me.

If you’re interested in connecting with HWPEP, here are a few ways to get involved:

Program Highlights

Here are just a few highlights from the past few months:

Academic Success

The program’s 42 students, split across three different cohorts, have completed a combined total of 1,633 credit hours. The composite GPA is 3.62 (with 13 students earning perfect 4.0s in the fall semester), and the program’s retention rate is 93%. Impressively, more than 73% of HWPEP students earned a spot on the Fall 2023 Dean’s List. 

Guest Speakers

Among other guest speakers, HWPEP, in collaboration with the NEA Big Read Lakeshore program, brought in Linda Lowery, the youngest marcher in the voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965. She visited the Muskegon Correctional Facility in November to speak with the students there.

New Advisors

In January, three new appointments were made to the Circle of Advisors, which “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.” The new advisors are:

  • Leanne Van Dyk
  • Sean Sword
  • Jim Boerigter

Learn more about these advisors at the HWPEP blog.

Media Coverage

Search for Co-Director

With Ray retiring at the end of the school year, the search is under way for a new, full-time co-director of the Hope-Western Prison Education Program. Learn more about the position and apply online.

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