First-ever college graduation in prison celebrates inmate accomplishments
IONIA – His tassel flipped from right to left, his name called from the podium and the grip-and-grin photo snapshot with Calvin University’s president taken, James Sturdivant slowly sank back into his seat among his fellow college graduates. He slowly opened the maroon-colored folder bearing his diploma, stared at it and shut the cover.
Then, he opened it again.
“I just wanted to make sure it was real,” Sturdivant said of the piece of paper signifying he earned a bachelor’s degree in faith and community leadership, with a minor in social work from Calvin, a private Christian liberal arts college in Grand Rapids.
The degree is real. So were the tall fences topped with barbed wire less than 10 steps away from where Sturdivant sat with 45 other bachelor degree recipients and 31 associate degree recipients inside the Michigan Department of Correction’s Richard A. Handlon Correctional Facility Monday afternoon.
The graduates were among three classes – the classes of 2020, 2021 and 2022 – to receive degrees from Calvin in what school and prison officials say was the first bachelor’s degree ceremony inside an active prison in modern history. Those who graduate from the Calvin Prison Initiative get the same degree as students on the main campus do. Last year, the program’s first graduate, out on parole, participated in Calvin’s main graduation ceremonies last year.
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The 90-minute ceremony was half worship service, half traditional academic proceeding and all joyous. Speaker after speaker was greeted with loud calls of affirmation. The graduate processional was witnessed by family and friends of the graduates, Calvin faculty and administrators and MDOC administrators, wardens and prison staff – all gathered underneath a white tent pitched on an old basketball court in an exercise yard at the rear of the prison.
“I just want to pause and take it in,” a clearly emotional Michael Le Roy, Calvin’s president, said at the beginning of the ceremony.
“This is … inspiring,” he said, choking up several times during his short speech. Each pause drew shouts of support from the audience.
A unique program
The CPI program was modeled after a similar program at the Louisiana State Penitentiary – known as Angola Prison and noted for its violent history – saw a massive reduction in violence after a college degree program was established in the early 1990s. John Rottman, a professor of preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary, went to Angola in 2010 to study the program.
At Handlon, classes first started at the request of a couple of inmates. The seminary courses were offered as non-credit options. The first full credit classes were taught on Sept. 8, 2015.
Today, students in the five-year program take classes such as Oral Rhetoric, Fundamental Questions in Philosophy and Foundations for Pastoral Care. Students receive an associate degree after completing three years of classes – the same ones offered on Calvin’s main campus.
After graduation, those still behind bars will be sent to other Michigan prisons, where they will work with other inmates in a variety of peer programs.
It costs about $ 800,000 a year to run the program, which was funded by private donors when it started. In recent years, the federal government has made federal Pell Grants available to prisoners to cover tuition costs. Those grants now make up about 60% of the program’s budget.
While Calvin is the first to have bachelor’s degree graduates in prison, other Michigan private and public universities and colleges are starting programs as well.
A moment of reflection
A few hours before the ceremony began, Sturdivant sat in his seat after running through songs to be performed with the rest of the all-male choir and reflected on his life.
He grew up in the housing projects of Detroit and dropped out after seventh grade. He said he was told repeatedly he had learning challenges, was placed in special programs and, at times, even ignored.
At the age of 17, Sturdivant was sentenced in 1996 to multiple life terms after being convicted on carjacking, first-degree criminal sexual conduct and felony firearms charges.
He gradually started to straighten out his life behind bars, attending various non-credit educational programs, including creative writing classes and a Shakespeare class. He then applied for and was accepted into the CPI program.
“It’s just another opportunity for me to learn,” he said. “The more I learn, the better it makes me as a person.”
A place of pride
As choir practice wrapped up, Sturdivant and his fellow graduates headed off for lunch and a wardrobe change.
Striped prison uniforms were swapped for blue dress pants and maroon dress shirts, to match Calvin’s dominate school color. Over it all went the gowns and caps with yellow Calvin tassels hanging from them. Sturdivant, who graduated cum laude with distinction, also got honor cords and a medallion.
During the ceremony, Heidi Washington, MDOC’s director, told the graduates she had been to a couple of other college graduation ceremonies over the weekend.
“Only thing different between you and the graduates I saw,” she said as people started to shift a little uncomfortably in their seats, “your grades are better,” she finished to roaring applause.
When Le Roy told the graduates they could flip their tassels signifying their status as college graduates, Sturdivant quickly moved his. After he smoothed into its proper place, he took a second to wipe his eyes as the emotions of the day settled in.
Each graduate got their moment in the sun when called by name to receive their degree and pose for a picture with Le Roy.
Sturdivant was among many who snuck long glances at the paper inside their folder upon returning to their seat. He is the first man in his family to attend college, let alone earn a degree.
“It was better than I thought it would be,” he said after the ceremony, adding that his expectations had already been pretty high. “I’m kind of sad it’s over. … You can not take this away from me, no matter what.”
David Jesse was a 2020-21 Spencer Education Reporting Fellow at Columbia University and the 2018 Education Writer Association’s best education reporter. Contact David Jesse: 313-222-8851 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter: @reporterdavidj. Subscribe to the Detroit Free Press.