IONIA, MI – When his name was called, the 39-year-old man walked toward Calvin University President Michael K. Le Roy, shook his hand and accepted his degree.
Calling it the greatest achievement of his life, Curtis E. Frye earned his bachelor’s degree while serving a life sentence for murder inside the walls of a Michigan prison.
“I feel like I found happiness along the way,” Frye told MLive/The Grand Rapids Press outside a tent where the graduation ceremony was held within the prison courtyard. “I feel like it’s changed my perspective. It’s changed me.”
Frye, who graduated summa cum laude with distinctions, was one of 45 prisoners at Richard A. Handlon Correctional Facility to receive a bachelor’s degree during a special commencement ceremony last week through the Calvin Prison Initiative.
The initiative, a joint effort created by Calvin University, Calvin Theological Seminary and state corrections officials, is a five-year program for select prisoners to pursue a bachelor’s degree in faith and community leadership from the Grand Rapids private university. For Frye, the journey to earning a college degree gave him a new purpose in life.
His graduation from college stands in stark contrast to the crime that led to his incarceration at Handlon prison in Ionia.
Frye, then 17, was arrested and charged for the June 17, 2000 killing of 22-year-old John Anton Wigman Jr. of Waterford, according to Oakland County court records. Frye fatally shot Wigman with a short-barreled rifle, records show.
He later accepted a plea deal, and in March 2001, Frye was sentenced to life in prison for second-degree murder.
Some may be critical of the program in reference to prisoners – serving time for serious offenses like murder and rape – being offered a chance to earn a college degree. However, the Michigan Department of Corrections has a different point of view on giving second chances.
“While they may be spending the rest of their life in prison, it does not mean there is no meaning or purpose left in that life,” Chris Gautz, spokesperson for the MDOC, wrote MLive/Grand Rapids Press in an email. “They will serve as change agents in the prisons they live in for years and decades to come. When young prisoners come in – who will parole someday – these college-educated prisoners will be there to serve as role models and mentors.”
“Yes they have done terrible things in their past, but they have decided not to let the worst moment of their life define the rest of their life,” he added. “They want to find a way to give back and help so others don’t end up in the position they find themselves in, which is confined to spend the rest of their natural life behind a prison wall.”
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Kary Bosma, the director of operations for the Calvin Prison Initiative, agreed.
“We have also seen reduced levels of violence at Handlon Correctional Facility since the start of the program, which provides a safer place for MDOC employees on a daily basis,” Bosma wrote in an email.
Frye admits to not being a “model” person in his younger years, but found new ways to motivate himself through the initiative.
“It’s really given me purpose,” Frye said, wearing a black cap and gown, an honor cord and graduation medallion.
Within the program, Frye trains puppies that will later work as leader dogs for the blind community. It’s something he takes great pride in doing.
During the May 9 commencement, as the tune of “Pomp and Circumstance” played throughout an enclosed tent, Frye walked toward his seat, waving to his mom and dad, and patiently sat. Sitting next to him was his leader-dog-in-training, also looking on.
Frye was one of 76 prisoners to earn a college degree May 9 as the commencement celebrated associate and bachelor’s degrees for the Class of 2020, 2021, and 2022.
In order to be selected for the program, candidates must have seven years remaining on their sentence until first eligible for parole. Offenders serving life sentences are also eligible to apply.
“They are better prepared to reenter society because of their participation in the CPI,” Bosma noted.
After the commencement ceremony, the graduates spent time with their loved ones – many sharing hugs, smiles and tears of joy.
“At some point in your journey, you were prompted by the Spirit to apply for this program,” Le Roy wrote to the graduates in a commencement pamphlet. “…And now may you walk forward with courage, with conviction, with confidence.”
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