Michael Duthler, social worker, reentry mentor, certified recovery coach, and community health worker, served twenty-six years of a parolable life sentence for second degree murder. He was complicit in the needless death of a young man. Desperate to understand why he acted contrary to what he believed was possible, he searched within. Shortly after his incarceration, he learned about Nelson Mandela’s incarceration, release, and willingness to forgive those who had wrongfully imprisoned him. Mandela’s strength was the South African principle of Ubuntu, an ideology which asserts that we find our humanity in one another, and is roughly translated as, “I am because we are.” Upon learning this, Michael realized he lost his humanity when he ceased to see the humanity of the young man whose life he had ended.
A Grand Rapids native, Michael faced many hardships as a teenager, including a degenerative hip condition which isolated him from peers and denied him usual socialization. Confused and hurting, he turned to a group of peers who accepted him and introduced him to drugs. He did not realize he was on a path of destruction which would culminate in the loss of life and his conviction of second-degree murder.
Initially, Michael couldn’t fathom deserving a second chance, let alone that others would help him achieve it. “I had a lot of years where I was hating myself for what I had done; I don’t have a day where I’m not thinking about his death,” he said. During those 26 years, Michael returned to his faith, took advantage of educational opportunities, grew in sobriety, and cemented his belief that every person is made in the image of God and is more than their worst mistake. The ideology of Ubuntu—finding his humanity in commonalities with peers and prison staff—kept his heart soft, his mind open, and disposed him to take advantage of the Calvin Prison Initiative program.
In 2015, Calvin University (Calvin College at the time) and Calvin Seminary started the Calvin Prison Initiative at Handlon Facility in Ionia, which allowed people with natural life, parolable life, and long indeterminate sentences the unique opportunity to work toward a college degree. Michael was among the first to sign up and was selected to be in the first cohort to graduate in 2020 with a fully-accredited Bachelor of Arts degree.
The “lifer” population in prison typically does not receive services and opportunities like this. “Prison is often a place of anti-relationship; it is a place where people are defined by the very worst thing that they have done, and that precludes any hope for any meaningful relationship.” Education deepened his understanding of others and the world. As Michael learned more about the idea of Ubuntu, he realized the stigma attached to “inmates,” “felons,” and “addicts” was antithetical to the concept.
Moreover, Michael noticed further stigmatization in his work with people incarcerated for criminal sexual conduct and in his service as a Deaf interpreter while incarcerated. Michael began to build relationships with people in these highly stigmatized groups because he recognized a common humanity. He met people who, like himself, “felt deep remorse and sorrow and desired wholeheartedly to change.” Through these relationships Michael found capacity for empathy and compassion, and therefore connected deeper with his own humanity.
A ‘star pupil’ in his Calvin University classes, Michael never took the opportunity for granted. He acted as a leader in that initial cohort, believing education was a gift that came with the responsibility to help and serve others. In 2018, Michael’s parolable life sentence was commuted due to legislative changes. He was released one day after receiving his Associate of Arts degree.
“On my first full day of freedom, the first thing I did was to go to Calvin and begin completing the FAFSA paperwork so I could begin classes that fall,” Michael said. Bound and determined to live out the remainder of his life with real purpose and meaning, to maximize the second chance on life he didn’t deserve, and to honor the young man whose life he ended, he knew education was key. After being paroled, Michael finished up his coursework on Calvin University’s Knollcrest Campus.
Michael graduated in May 2020 with a Bachelor of Arts in Social Work. After a one-year delay due to the pandemic, he donned his cap and gown to participate in the ceremonies. “It was very emotional,” said Michael, recalling his walk across the stage. “I was very much thinking of those people who had supported me throughout my journey. But, for me in a very particular way, I was thinking about the guys that are still at Handlon Correctional Facility.”
Michael found his calling through an internship at the Muskegon-based nonprofit Fresh Coast Alliance, which helps individuals reenter society after incarceration and/or addiction. Officially joining the team after his graduation, Michael completed addiction recovery coach certification that spring. “Sometimes reality is stranger than fiction,” Michael said. “Here I am helping the very person that I was.”
Michael sees himself in those he helps. He loves experiencing how people in reentry and recovery image God and strives to help them live into this truth. Never taking his second chance for granted, Michael feels a responsibility to give back: “A huge aspect of my life is paying it forward. I’ve received so many undeserved blessings that I can’t help but to pay those blessings forward for the rest of my life.”
Michael approaches his work with the ideology of Ubuntu. It was through the relationships he built while incarcerated that he found his humanity. “Empathy and compassion were the antidotes I needed to let go of my anger and bitterness, to regain that part of me that had the capacity for relationship so that I could become human again.”
Michael shares his story often, expressing remorse through the lens of Ubuntu, “How I wish I placed my victim in relationship with other people, how I wish I would have thought of him as a son, as a brother, uncle, cousin, a would-be father.” His life’s work is deeply rooted in building compassion and empathy in all people through relationship.
Listen to Michael tell his story here: