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Research Design

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In order to gauge the program’s initial impact on CPI participants, we conducted a pilot study of student reflections through formal essays designed to measure motivations for applying to the CPI. We collected data at two points during students’ engagement with the CPI: First, through essays written as part of the application process for the program, and second, through essays at the transition between receiving their certificates of completion and moving on to the Associate’s Degree. The former asked applicants to explain why they wanted to be admitted into the program, how they have tried in the past to help other inmates who were in need, and what role they thought civility should play within the prison context. The latter asked students to explain why they wished to continue their education, describe what role education might play in their future development, and reflect on how they have grown personally since their incarceration and as a result of participating in the program. The timespan between the two sets of essay questions was approximately 1.5 years. For the purposes of the pilot study, and in light of the program goal to equip CPI students to be “agents of renewal” in their prison communities, our research questions were twofold:

  • 1. What is the impact of the CPI program on the CPI student body?
  • 2. How has the program influenced the way CPI students see themselves as moral and spiritual leaders within Michigan’s prisons?

The evidence presented below is compelling in suggesting that higher education programs in prisons, especially when incorporated within a larger moral (and spiritual) framework, may have a significant impact on prison reform and inmate rehabilitation.

Data Analysis

At the point of analysis, we had received 100 application essays and 57 transition essays. These essays were grouped by individual students when possible, so that a comparison from the application to transition phase could be made. Initially, all essays were read by a faculty committee responsible for admitting students into the Calvin program and for advancing students to the Associate’s Degree. For the purposes of this pilot study, each pair of applications (m = 57) was analyzed by CPI staff who coded each essay question for salient themes (Saldana, 2015). Readers were asked to track language that went from general description to more specific description in regard to how students saw themselves as moral and spiritual leaders. Readers were also asked to highlight such evidence and compare data sets. Codes were then compared across individual students to uncover themes that were consistent across a sizable number of the students. As part of the data analysis process, readers convened and compared their coding of data to ensure inter-coder agreement.


It is important to note one limitation inherent in the design of this pilot study. Because the application and transition essays were administered to students at different phases of the academic program, they served different purposes and therefore asked different questions. Moreover, the application essay questions required largely descriptive responses, while the transition essays required deeper personal reflection. Thus, it is possible that a shift in student responses from generality to specificity could have resulted in part from differences in the essay questions, rather than from personal growth cultivated by CPI program participation. Students completing the application essays understood that they were applying to a program that could lead to an Associate’s Degree in Ministry Leadership and presumably would have been motivated to address the topics of moral and spiritual leadership to the best of their abilities when answering the essay questions. However, it is possible that some students may have provided more general responses in their application essays than they might have if the questions had required greater personal reflection, although it is difficult to determine whether they would have used the concepts and vocabulary introduced by the program prior to participation in it. To address this limitation, future research on the CPI’s outcomes will incorporate a comprehensive design intended to more precisely identify program effects.

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