- by Brian J. Bowe 

The Muskegon Correctional Facility is idyllic, with '70s architecture reminiscent of a college campus. But when the heavy steel doors slam shut with an unholy clang, there's no mistaking that it's a prison.

Inside the walls of that Level II facility, a small group of inmates in blue and orange prison uniforms gather with Grand Valley faculty for courses like logic, ethics, world history, economics and film studies. The inmates are participating in a program that is teaching them the value of a liberal education - and that hopefully will have them becoming philanthropists. 

These men are participants in the Community Working Classics Leadership Program, which was developed by Michael DeWilde, associate professor of philosophy. At the heart, the program is an inquiry into the value of a liberal education that prepares the student-inmates to be educated and active citizens, DeWilde said.

While prison education programs are nothing new, the Community Working Classics Leadership Program has a novel element. At the end of the two-year program, the participants will have access to a $28,000 venture fund to institute a philanthropic project.

One student in the program, Michael Harris-Bey, said the program is a gift that the inmates have been given - with the responsibility to share it with society.

Harris-Bey said he feels "a moral obligation to correct my wrongs, not just by doing time but by extending myself beyond just my civil obligation to keep a job and becoming a law-abiding citizen. My moral obligation is to begin to try to correct the wrongs I have done. To me, that can only be done by helping those who are in similar positions as I found myself in."

The program is funded by a grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Alandra Washington, program director of philanthropy and volunteerism at the foundation, was familiar with another prison learning project spearheaded by DeWilde called Community Working Classics. That program was honored with the 2002 Prize for Excellence and Innovation in Philosophy Programs by the American Philosophical Association and the Philosophy Documentation Center.

"The one piece that I really thought would help to enhance that project was seeing if there was a way to integrate philanthropy and the process of philanthropy into the program," Washington said.

Washington said she and DeWilde had many philosophical conversations about how to help individuals who feel that they have no value and worth to society.

"How do you help them tap into that inherent capacity and power to contribute meaningfully to society?" Washington asked.

In their first philanthropic act last September, the inmates sent a message to youngsters - education is the best way to stay out of trouble. The inmates helped bring $1,500 worth of school supplies to the Henry Paideia Elementary School in Grand Rapids.

After the inmates heard a talk given by William Noakes, chief counsel for Meijer Corporation, they decided they wanted to do something for the school. Through contacts with Noakes, they were able to arrange the donation of bookbags, basketballs and footballs for the school. The inmates themselves gathered enough notepads and pencils to supply the entire school.

"The school serves a low-income community much like the community most of these guys came from," DeWilde said. "They all see education as the ticket out of what are pretty bad circumstances and they wanted these kids to have things they didn't have."

Upcoming projects that program participants are arranging include the donation of books and a tour of Grand Valley to selected at-risk students from Grand Rapids; donations of toys and games to DeVos Children's Hospital; and the making of a video on the dangers of drugs that will be distributed to local youth facilities.

The inmates are still debating what to do with the bulk of the venture fund - debates that can get heated at times.

"We butt heads - and when we butt heads we butt heads hard," said participant Burl Deshone Ray, noting that each inmate would like to target his own hometown or address problems particular to his own upbringing.

The ideas run from youth mentoring programs in Saginaw, Muskegon, Detroit and Grand Rapids to supporting the digging of wells in Africa. And as they discuss them, the inmates experience the power that comes with the ability to make the world a better place.

"It makes you identify yourself as a leader," said Harris-Bey.

The participating inmates have been convicted of offenses ranging from armed robbery to first-degree murder. Some were convicted as teenagers. They talk of broken families, drug problems and poor choices. They're not the kind of people traditionally considered leadership material. Or, as student-inmate Markeith Canada put it, "All I am to the world is a criminal."

Yet the faculty who have interacted with the inmates see a deeper value there.

"I've been transformed by these guys," said Steeve Buckridge, an associate professor of history who has taught at the prison. "I've learned from them; I'm getting new perspectives from them."

Maria Cimitile, an associate dean in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and an associate professor of philosophy, taught a logic course at the prison.

"The students were so enthusiastic. They had an incredible desire to learn," Cimitile said. "I would go to class and immediately they would start asking questions. Through those questions, it was clear that the students had done the reading and assignments ahead of time - sometimes two or three times over. Having students that are prepared and inquisitive really heightens your ability to teach well."

Cimitile said people often ask her if she's safe in the prison - a question she attributes to the mythology built up around penitentiary life.

"I had some of my own questions about that the first night I went in," she said. "I felt completely safe in that environment - not because of the guards standing outside that room, but the guys in the room made me feel safe. I felt very respected and safe and valued in that environment." 

That reality is at odds with popular perceptions of convicts.

"How do you fight stereotypes? You converse with people," Cimitile said. "You connect with people on that very personal level and you understand them as being another human being in the world."

DeWilde said the response to the program at the university has been positive. "Where it gets contentious," he said, "is more in the outside world, among the general public who don't understand why guys who've committed crimes should have these kinds of opportunities."

He added that within the prison itself, there's a split among the guards and some of the staff. Some see the benefit of educating people who are eventually going back out in the community. Others believe the inmates have used up all their chances and deserve mostly punitive responses.

Naturally, DeWilde is a believer in the former argument.

"The guys themselves talk about this," he said. "Most of them are going to get out again, and you can be part of a process that helps give them some skills - both hard skills and soft skills - to give them a better shot at being successful, productive citizens. It's like that whole line about turning out citizens instead of just better criminals. We have a self-interest in who these people are when they come out."

Page last modified July 22, 2011