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Richard A. Handlon Correctional Facility (also known as MTU) might seem like a normal prison from the outside, but on the inside, the culture is shifting. This transition began when Calvin College, now Calvin University, began offering a bachelor of arts degree in 2015. The program is known as the Calvin Prison Initiative (CPI). Each year, 20 to 30 inmates are selected from prisons throughout Michigan and transferred to MTU, where they begin working toward their degrees. Each prisoner, upon completion, receives a bachelor’s degree in Faith and Community Leadership with a minor in Social Work. The hope and goal of those who created the CPI program—professors from Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary—is to change the violent nature often found within prisons by offering a quality education. The idea was premised on the fact that educated people are less likely to reoffend, and yes, the violence at MTU has dropped significantly since the inception of the CPI program.

I became aware of the CPI program through a printed memo posted on a prison bulletin board at Lakeland Correctional Facility in Coldwater, MI. While there were several of these fliers advertising associate’s degrees, only one offered a bachelor’s degree: the program from Calvin College. A few factors contributed to my wanting to obtain a degree. Incarcerated inmates in the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) have to be within 24 months of their earliest release date before they are able to receive any programing. For someone like me, serving a 20-year sentence, there is no programming for the first 18 years. I spent the first nine years of my incarceration trying to find something to do besides playing games, working out, watching TV, socializing, or reading. I was looking for a purpose, for my time to have meaning, and to feel like I wasn’t discarded by society.

After reviewing the postings for college degrees, I decided to apply for the bachelor’s degree program. I had gone to college right out of high school, but dropped out for full­time employment. Going back to college was something I had always wanted to do. Plus, I wanted something tangible to show the parole board. I didn’t want them to see that I had sat idle doing nothing constructive with my time. I wanted them to see that I had done something that mattered. Something that made a difference.

The CPI program affected me in more ways than I ever could have imagined. I must admit, and I’m a little ashamed of this, I had never heard of Calvin College before seeing that posted memo. The flyer didn’t indicate that Calvin was a private Christian college, all it noted was that it offered a bachelor’s degree in leadership. After I received my acceptance letter in May 2017, I called my parents because I wanted them to share in my joy. My mother’s response was not what I was expecting. She said, “You got accepted into Calvin College? You know that’s a Christian college, right?” I was more than a little stunned. I had given up on God and Christianity. After suffering heavy losses in my life, I struggled with the idea of theodicy—if God is all powerful and all good then why does he allow evil things to befall innocent people? I told my mother that I would refuse my acceptance. My mother, however, challenged me. She asked that I give Calvin College a chance, stating, “God doesn’t make mistakes.” I have never liked disappointing my mother, therefore, I chose to give Calvin a chance.

What happened next is something that is rarely found within a prison setting. I was transferred to MTU and placed in a housing unit with the first three cohorts of Calvin College students. I was welcomed with open arms by people whom I had never met and was immediately part of a community. All aspects of the normal prison culture were tossed aside. No one asked me about my conviction. No one tried to extort me. No one tried to hurt me. I was given a welcome gift bag and introduced to more than 50 people, all ready and willing to help. It felt like I had entered an episode of The Twilight Zone. Being around other inmates who were good-natured and helpful was something I had been missing. I was quite happy I had taken my mother’s advice.

The inmates were not the only good-natured and helpful people I met. Professors, administrators, student tutors, and other volunteers helped me. Lisa DeYoung, the CPI Chaplain at the time, offered spiritual advice and pastoral care. After hearing of several recent losses in my life, she asked to meet with me. Mrs. DeYoung reminded me I was more than an inmate, that I mattered, and that people cared. Her act of kindness reminded me of the tenets of Christianity I had grown up with and of my mother’s words that God does not make mistakes.

Having long since given up on God and Christianity when I entered the program, I had no appreciation of its religious aspects. However, starting each class with a devotional and prayer became the building blocks upon which I started to form a renewed relationship with Christ. The religious aspects of this program invite inmates to reground themselves and begin again. When we begin again, we can build a new foundation, and we all know things are only as strong as the foundations they are built on. The religious aspects of the CPI provide students with an opportunity to rebuild their lives with much better material. I take this belief with me and it has guided me and helped prepare me to become a mentor in the program.

The mentor program began after the graduation of the CPI’s first cohort of students in 2020. The program consists of two paths—peer-to-peer mentoring and substance abuse mentoring. I am both a peer-to-peer mental health mentor and a substance abuse mentor. When I was a student, my favorite classes were social work and pastoral care. It was an obvious choice for me to become a mentor and pay forward what was freely given to me. People struggle every day in prison, and I want to be a listening ear through actively listening to hurt people. As a peer-to-peer mentor, I’ve helped people learn how to read, helped them obtain their GEDs, and met some extraordinary people. I know my involvement as a mentor has helped others, but it has also deeply affected me. I have been incarcerated for 16 years now, and in all that time I have never felt more fulfilled. In helping other men, I have found my purpose and calling. I have found peace in this chaotic place.

Peer-to-peer mentors work with inmates who have special needs and are assigned to either the Residential Treatment Program (RTP) or the Adaptive Skills Residential Program (ASRP). Since the inmates assigned to these programs are isolated from the general prison population, mentors were given special access to their housing units to meet and work with them. Mentors help with a variety of tasks, but above all they simply acknowledge the humanity of the other prisoners, many of whom prefer not to leave their cells. With help from their mentors, they begin to recognize their intrinsic value as human beings.

The substance abuse mentors started an inmate-run program called Breaking the Chains (BTC), which anyone in MTU, regardless of housing assignment, is eligible to attend. BTC uses a 12-step program with a Christian emphasis. The mentors, thanks to MTU administration, have been given a room in the school building where there are meetings six nights a week. Participants have a safe space to talk about their addictions. Initially, BTC was designed for substance-abuse addictions; however, after hearing about the class, inmates with other addictions such as sex, gambling, food, and codependency began attending and found this forum helpful.

Unfortunately, after COVID-19 infected MTU, the administration shut down both the peer-to-peer and BTC mentoring as they isolated housing units in an effort to curb the spread of the virus.

After 18 months of dealing with COVID protocols within the MDOC, restrictions gradually eased, and the mentoring programs resumed. However, the post-COVID mentorship looked different. Even though the facility was open to CPI graduates being mentors (now from the first, second, and third cohorts), the program had some heavy restrictions. Due to the residual segregation of housing units, mentors were no longer allowed to travel to and from the units of those in need. This restriction made it impossible for the mentors to accomplish their roles; therefore, something had to give. Subsequently, in the early spring of 2022, several mentors were allowed to relocate from their assigned housing unit to one of the special-needs units and became permanent fixtures therein.

For most inmates, the experience of being welcomed by other inmates and/or staff is unheard of and usually met with hesitation. Normally, when inmates are overly nice or offer to help other inmates, there is an ulterior motive. Oftentimes, these motives revolve around manipulation and exploitation of the person being approached. That is not the case with the mentors, who are authentic and sincere in their desire to help and learn, which makes mentorship a natural and enjoyable process.

The mentors have become an integral part of the unit, which, in turn, is its own community among the broader prison population. While specific case managers, psychologists, and corrections officers are not always available, the mentors are ever-present and have become a valuable resource.

Though the mentors are not case-workers or psychologists, they have received appropriate training through both the CPI and the MDOC regarding what they should and should not do when interacting with other prisoners. The mentors have been trained to navigate boundaries, understand triangulation, practice crisis intervention and mediation, and deal with threats of harm. However, above all, mentors have learned to simply be present with the men being mentored, showing them that everyone matters.

The education and training the mentors have received has helped, and the practical experience of working with people one-on-one is a great teacher as well. The mentors acquire and demonstrate a level of patience rarely found within a prison setting. Many of the men being mentored have poor impulse control and don’t contemplate what, or how, their words and/or actions might affect others for good or bad. On the one hand, when it comes to the men in the ASRP or RTP programs, the power dynamic that separates correction officers and inmates is usually met with resistance, disrespect, or insolent behavior. On the other hand, these same men act differently when they see a mentor: they smile, wave, call out names, and want to give a fist bump or handshake. It is incumbent upon the mentors to model the best example when dealing with staff and other inmates because the men being mentored mimic what they see. To put it another way, the mentors’ witness matters, which requires them to be mindful of their actions and their words. The mentors are trying to put forth a message of faith, hope, and love. Therefore, they don’t just verbalize the message with the intent of others hearing it, they become the message—presenting the best possible version of themselves.

Beyond this, an unexpected reward of mentorship is that the mentors themselves are impacted by those being mentored. For instance, being told “thank you for listening to me,” and “thank you for making me feel important,” are not uncommon phrases for the mentors to hear. And “thank you” is a two-way street, because the mentors learn just as much from those being mentored. Knowing that you have helped someone at a deep affective level provides a sense of fulfillment that makes you want to continue to help.

Showing genuine kindness in prison without ulterior motives or the prospect of attachment may not be considered normal, but the mentors at MTU have shed the chains of institutionalization, exemplifying how a convict has the power to rise above his/her worst choice. Ultimately, the goal of all CPI graduates is to be an agent of renewal within the prison system; therefore, it is imperative that mentors continue to break the norms of prisoner behavior—shifting from convict to mentor—while changing the culture around them and within themselves.

Robert S. Horton

Robert S. Horton is a 2022 graduate of Calvin University and an inmate in the Richard A. Handlon Correctional Facility in Ionia, Michigan.


  • Mark S. Hiskes says:

    What you are doing within the prison system is so inspiring. Your model of mentoring, where you “don’t just verbalize the message with the intent of others hearing it,” but you “become the message—presenting the best possible version of” yourself, is something every Christian, in prison or out, should hope to do.

    Thank you for being the hands and feet of Jesus for those in prison and now, through this beautiful essay, for those of us on the outside. What a great gift you and this essay are to all of us.

  • Jeanne Engelhard Heetderks says:

    Thank you! May you continue to be a blessing to so many.

  • Barbara J. Hampton says:

    Thank you, Robert, for all that you are doing. May the godly blessings you are giving return to you a hundred-fold.

  • Diane Dykgraaf says:

    Praise God for this ministry! Thank you for being Jesus in this place. I pray for God’s blessing in your life and work.

  • Lisa DeYoung says:

    I am beyond grateful for the privilege of having been able to work with the CPI students at Handlon. It’s exactly as Bob said – the mentoring relationship is reciprocal- and teaches both participants more than we could ever imagine. I learned so much from Bob and the other students about resilience, trust, and the risk of faith in an environment that often criticizes rather than rewards authenticity. The wholehearted determination to walk the narrow road of integrity through incredible suffering is something that has inspired my own journey. I praise the Lord for these men of faith who have stood the test, who are running the race, and who are able to get a taste of the goodness of God in a place that rarely shows them grace. Keep up the great work! Congratulations on the reach of this article which will inspire people beyond the prison walls!

    • Claudia Beversluis says:

      Bob’s journey is a great testimony to your work, Lisa. A privilege indeed!

  • Henry Baron says:

    Thank you for sharing your journey toward faith, education, and a caring servant heart!
    You’ve blessed us too.

  • Robert, I am filled with awe and praise of the goodness of God at work in you to bring His light into places where darkness dwells! He transforms and makes lives new!! You are living proof of the power of Christ to set the prisoner free!! All praise to Him for such miracles of grace!
    I am a volunteer mentor with Crossroads for Prisoners (Canada) and in my five years of connection to prisoners through grading Bible courses and writing accompanying letters, I have been humbled and blessed by my students! For men and women incarcerated, Crossroads offers connection to Christian mentors on the outside. It is another instrument God uses to bring healing and wholeness to hurting, broken, forgotten men and women in the prisons of our nations. Available to anyone doing time. Mentors needed as well! A beautiful work to be involved in.

  • David E Stravers says:

    Thanks Robert! Your testimony is a great encouragement to me. The power dynamics in the prisons I know makes them a hell on earth for most inmates. Congratulations to Calvin and to the powers that be at Richard A. Handlon Correctional Facility that allowed this program for you. My prayer is that the authoritarian dictators in other prisons will see this as a model for their prisons.

  • Joyce Looman Kiel says:

    May I always be reminded, “Mrs. DeYoung reminded me I was more than an inmate, that I mattered, and that people cared.” And also from Richard Rohr’s meditation today of the ending line by James Finely “Everyone’s an infinitely loved, broken person in a fleeting, often not-so-fair, gorgeous, lovely, unexplainable world.” Please Lord.
    And thank you Robert Horton for living out “when you have done it to the least of these…”

  • Ken Agema says:

    Robert, thank you for sharing such an inspirational story. Like Jesus, we are all wounded healers. You are a living example of what that means.

  • Jack I says:

    So glad you listened to Mom! Thanks for your witness, Robert.

  • Phyllis Roelofs says:

    Thank you for this description of how you were blessed by earning a college education and are now being a blessing in the lives of others. The Breaking The Chains program is a great way to confront all addictions, a segment of time as needed.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    The Kingdom of God. Just plain Kingdom of God.

  • Grace Shearer says:

    Thanks for sharing these experiences with us. I’m so glad you followed your mother’s advice. God doesn’t make mistakes. Keep up your good work and influence.

  • Claudia Beversluis says:

    Thank you Bob, for describing your journey and your vocation inside the walls of Handlon. I trust these comments are getting back to you. The way that you and your colleagues have take the experiences of the program and crafted them into ways to bless and mentor others has been an inspiration! Seeing this expansion of care-giving is outstanding. It was an honor to teach you and be taught by you.

  • Mackayla says:

    You are not only an inspiration to those in Handlon, but to me and so many others. I am so proud to call you not only my uncle, but my best friend. You (and grandma) are some of the strongest people I know, and the work that you do is much needed for so many people.