GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Calvin University and other schools across the state signed on to a consortium in an effort to bring more higher education opportunities to prisons.

An event was held on Calvin’s campus Wednesday evening to promote programs between schools and the Michigan Department of Corrections. 

Twelve schools have joined the Michigan consortium. They will work with Calvin University to learn its best practices for higher education in prisons.

Through its Prison Initiative, Calvin University is leading other colleges and universities in Michigan that already have programs in prisons and also helping schools interested in bringing higher education to prisons.

“I would love to see a school offer a business major, perhaps another one computer skills — whatever the case — and that way, a potential student could choose,” said Todd Cioffi, Director of the Calvin Prison Initiative.

Cioffi said some of the incarcerated students outpace Calvin’s traditional students in GPA and in honors.

“I have one student who was told he was special ed in school, dropped out of school and taught himself how to read in prison … thought he would never go to college. He graduated a year ago with honors with a 3.6,” said Cioffi.

Educating incarcerated individuals depopulates prisons.

“Any higher education … the rate at which they recidivate, meaning goes back to prison, in 3-5 years drops 50%. If you get a B.A., it drops 8%. If you get a master’s degree, below 1%,” Cioffi said.

Positivity and education transform the individual.

“You see a lightbulb goes off on somebody’s face, particularly when they get it,” said Heidi Washington, Director of Michigan Department of Corrections. 

It also spreads into the prison environment. 

“When you can also benefit the prison culture by reducing incidents and creating a more calm environment, then that’s something we should all be supportive of as well,” said Washington. 

MDOC has been a partner since Calvin was a college. 

“At first, non-credit-bearing courses inside our Handlon Correctional Facility. That partnership has grown and developed over the years,” said Washington. 

Now the Higher Education in Prisons program is recognized around the country. 

“Michigan has been at the forefront of this movement, in particular the movement to encourage Congress to reauthorize Pell Grants and the availability of Pell Grants to be used for incarcerated learners,” said Washington. 

“I was very grateful to get a million dollars through the House Appropriations and the Senate approved it and the governor signed it,” said State Sen. Mark Huizenga, R-Walker.

At the conference, a consortium was signed, linking universities and colleges together to educate incarcerated individuals. It’s a first in Michigan. 

“The schools now will work together to use these Pell Grants for incarcerated students to the best of each school’s mission and vision. So this is really making history in Michigan,” said Cioffi. 

“The goal is if we have programs in every prison in Michigan, I think we can literally see our prison system transform from the inside out.”

Calvin University and MDOC also created the returning citizens mapping application, which allows people to find and use more than 3,000 services in all counties in Michigan.