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    Class of 2023 graduates of the Calvin Prison Initiative.

    My Liberal Arts Education in Prison

    Studying the humanities while incarcerated restored my trust in humanity.

    By Sean Sword

    January 27, 2024
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    • George Marsh

      As a former college English teacher, I am happy to learn of this man's respect for liberal arts education. I pray he succeeds in his chosen profession, and I hope he has people who care enough for him to counsel him on the precarity of the teaching profession especailly, at the college level. The iron economic law of supply and demand applies to all people. Tenure, if it still exists, is not assured to all faculty members. It is prudent to hone skills in other fields besides academia.

    Who has time for conversing about old books and abstract ideas such as truth, the good life, or justice? One clear answer to this question would be: individuals confined in prison seeking a path toward rehabilitation, as well as corrections officials who want to protect the public while simultaneously providing prisoners with an opportunity for growth.

    The confines of prison compel individuals who seek a path of rehabilitation to engage in a soul-searching process and reflect on various aspects of a life gone astray. Most of that reflection is done in isolation or solitude where human qualities such as kindness, civility, and love are absent. Because we are relational beings, those missing qualities severely restrict a proper reception of any type of education. When the Michigan Department of Corrections allowed the opportunity for prisoners to participate in a faith-based education, the liberal arts were liberated – freed from their confinement to schools, they broke through prison walls.

    This liberal arts program has created a space for kindness, civility, and love to flourish at the Richard A. Handlon campus in Ionia, Michigan. Students and staff have become better-integrated human beings as a result, and although rehabilitation does not happen in an instant, the liberal arts play a key role in the prisoner’s restoration to society.

    Through the generosity of donors who wish to participate in the restorative process, Calvin University and Calvin Theological Seminary provided me with training in the liberal arts while I was in prison. This experience enhanced my ability to apply discussions of truth, the good life, and justice to my life in two ways. First, it provided me with a path to redemption and reconciliation through the teachings of Christ, which gave balance and clarity in a spiritual sense. Second, I was attracted to the idea of servant leadership, geared toward restoration of my relationship with society and starting with staff and prisoners within the facility. Together, these two aspects served as a much-needed balm for the shame of past wrongs and a solid foundation for returning to life as a citizen in society.

    Class of 2023 graduates of the Calvin Prison Initiative.

    Class of 2023 graduates of the Calvin Prison Initiative. Photograph by Kyle Kalm. Used by permission.

    Guiding me toward a vocation and a vision of God’s kingdom, the faith-based component of my education has been instrumental, since it is most responsible for my relationship with professors, staff, and other students. These relationships are about more than just the exchange of information; they are about inquiry into truth, the good life, justice, and love in relation to others – reflecting the character of Christ and the relational qualities most yearned for in the prison setting.

    This educational ministry carries over into the overwhelming expression of support that I have received since being released from prison and continuing my studies on Calvin’s main campus at Knollcrest. Students and faculty have welcomed me with open arms. I attend classes and campus events brimming with confidence that I have a home within this community. My trust in humanity has been restored, and the process of reconciliation with God and his creation is my top priority.

    Another major influence in restoring my trust in humanity has been the liberal arts curriculum and the vibrant learning environment it produces at the university. It is a mirror image of what was happening at the Handlon campus where I started my courses and embarked on a serious effort at being able to trust again. Communication between prisoners, officers, and administration improved dramatically. Calvin Prison Initiative students began to engage the larger prison population as peer-to-peer mentors, tutors for the various vocational trade programs, and effective mediators who prevented violence within the facility.

    At the Knollcrest campus, the liberal arts forum allows for students and faculty to become better educated about the criminal justice system and the lives of those within its grasp. I don’t know of many educational opportunities where a twenty-year-old college student who wants to be a lawyer has a classmate who served twenty-seven years in prison. Imagine the rich content that is found in a sociology class focused on corrections and incarceration, or a statistics and probability course that studies the mean, median, and mode of incarceration numbers at all levels of government. That is what the liberal arts provides: an opportunity to learn from each other based on life experiences, academic instruction, and direction toward vocation in society.

    The prisoners and staff who make up the population of a prison are a microcosm of what is found in the larger societies we live in. I was sentenced to life without parole at the age of seventeen for crimes against society. The liberal arts have exposed me to topics such as truth, the good life, and justice and allowed me to restore my relationship with God and his creation in a way that has changed my life forever.


    From The Liberating Arts: Why We Need Liberal Arts Education (Plough, 2023).

    Contributed By SeanSword Sean Sword

    Sean Sword is a student majoring in criminology at Calvin University. A juvenile offender, he served twenty-seven years in prison and began his college studies at the Richard A. Handlon Correctional Facility in Ionia, Michigan, through the Calvin Prison Initiative.

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