MUSKEGON, Mich. (WOOD) — Hope College and Western Theological Seminary are working together to provide educational opportunities to men incarcerated at a state prison in Muskegon.

The Hope-Western Prison Education Program started as a pilot program in March 2019, offering noncredit courses to a cohort of 20 inmates at the Muskegon Correctional Facility.

“We undertook this pilot program so that we could better understand what it’s like to teach in prison, to try to get a sense for the students, who these men were and what their needs were and how we could best serve their educational and their formational needs,” said Hope Professor Richard Ray, who co-directs the program with David Stubbs. 

At that time, six noncredit courses were offered, most of them face-to-face. Since the pandemic began, those classes haven’t been taught in person, but that has given program leaders a chance to brainstorm ways to take the program a step further. 

“We’re now going to switch out of the pilot program, the noncredit phase of the program into the degree-granting phase of the program. And so this cohort of 20 students will serve as our first class of students who we hope in four years will graduate with a Hope College bachelor’s degree,” Ray said. 

Michigan Department of Corrections spokesman Chris Gautz says education is one of the best tools in reducing recidivism rates. 

“That’s evidenced by the fact that right now in Michigan, our recidivism rate is the lowest it’s ever been in state history at 26.6%. And it’s why we rank now sixth in the nation for our recidivism rate, the highest ranking we’ve ever had, and so that’s in part because of education opportunities like this,” Gautz explained. 

He added that some might argue it seems counterintuitive to provide prisoners with four-year degrees in these kinds of studies, especially if they have life sentences, but he said there’s a good reason behind it. 

“Why we offer this both to prisoners who are lifers as well as to those who are serving indeterminate sentences who will someday parole back to their communities is because when they have this level of education, when they have the type of degrees that Hope is going to be offering to them, they’re going to become changemakers and not only in the communities in which they’re going to return to, but they can also be changemakers while they’re still in prison in their prison community,” Gautz said. 

The program is available at no cost to inmates. Ray said that’s thanks to donor support, but there is still a need for funding from the community to pay professors, buy textbooks, pay mileage to and from the prison among other costs.

Gautz explained that prisons can provide inmates with their GED and partner with colleges around the state to offer degree programs, but under state law, MDOC is not able to offset costs for post-secondary education. More information about the program and how to support it can be found online at Hope’s website