June 13, 2023 | Matt Kucinski

A woman wearing glasses interacts with a couple of people in a lobby following her plenary address.
MDOC Director Heidi Washington interacts with participants following her opening remarks at the Calvin Prison Initiative Conference held at Calvin University from May 17-19.

“Working in prison is hard. Living in prison is hard. There are not a lot of inspirational things that you see,” said Heidi Washington, director of the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC).

Washington’s had an inside view of the prison system for more than a quarter century—for many years as a warden, and now as MDOC’s director. But during her time, she’s seen, rather led, a strategic shift.

“Well, there weren’t [a lot of inspirational things inside prison]. I will say there were not. I think today there are. And there’s more and more all the time.”

Raising the standard

The shifting tide on the inside is in part tied to an unofficial motto Washington’s championed during her time as director: “Make prison time productive time.”

This motto is rooted in what Washington knows to be true—it’s data-driven.

“Yes, our primary goal is public safety. We do that by running safe and secure prisons, by taking people who have harmed the public and keeping them away from the public. And that’s what we call short-term public safety,” said Washington. “The reality is 98% of them are going home, so what we are really after is long-term public safety. How do we do that? Well, we do not get it, and history tells us this, by locking people away and not investing in them.”

In the not-so-distant past, about 50% of Michigan inmates returned to prison within three years of being released. Under Washington’s watch, Michigan is now one of the nation’s leaders in helping paroled inmates be productive citizens outside prison walls.

Manifesting a motto

To best understand the “why” behind this, one needs to step inside Handlon Correctional Facility in Ionia, Michigan.

Walk inside and you’ll soon approach a building that houses Vocational Village, an innovative concept that Director Washington launched in 2015 with then-warden Dewayne Burton, that teaches students in-demand trades. Everyone who participates receives a state or national credential, a license or certification. This allows inmates who are being released to get the prep they need to get and hold a good job. There are now three of these villages inside Michigan prisons.

“One of the things I’m most proud about is that a lot of these vocational programs and the expansion of them in the state of Michigan has come from our employer partners," said Washington. "We have some phenomenal employer partners in the state who have come to us and actually told us about their need. We have phenomenal programs that are putting people in high-paying jobs the day they walk out.”

Right next door to Handlon’s Vocational Village, is the Calvin Prison Initiative program. “They kind of grew up together,” said Washington of the two programs. “They both started out quite small, helping each other, and every year they’ve grown and grown.”

Data-driven decision making

The most recent RAND study found that the number one determining factor of whether someone returns to prison is tied to one’s education. It’s one of the key reasons Washington is excited to continue to build upon the exemplar program MDOC, Calvin University, and Calvin Theological Seminary, have partnered on since 2015.

“What we’ve done is invest in evidence-based programs,” said Washington. “The partnership with Calvin has been fantastic for a number of reasons. One because they are so passionate about this work, and they are so committed to it. They show up, they support the students, they don’t just come in to deliver the class, they are invested, they are engaged with them, they offer other supports.”

With the expansion of the Second-Chance Pell Grant, a number of institutions across the state are now joining the effort. Last month during the Calvin Prison Initiative Conference on Higher Education in Prison held on the Calvin University campus, a dozen colleges and universities formally agreed to become part of a consortium of institutions who are offering higher ed inside Michigan’s prisons.

While delivering educational programming behind bars indeed helps curb recidivism, Washington says it’s really more about what it helps restore … dignity.

Going beyond simply stats

“It gives opportunity where oftentimes people were out of hope and didn’t think there was any opportunity for them,” said Washington as she reflected on the 2022 Calvin Prison Initiative graduation ceremony, where the first three cohorts of Calvin Prison Initiative graduates received their bachelor’s degrees in a grand celebration with their families behind bars. “Look at these men, no one ever expected them to go to college, truthfully people expected them to go to prison. And now they’re in prison and they have finished college. So, in my entire career, it’s probably one of the most prideful experiences I’ve had is being there and witnessing that.

“My ultimate goal for what would happen at the Handlon campus is every individual who lives there would be involved in some form of postsecondary or vocational village trade so that it would truly be a campus where every person there was involved in one of these programs,” said Washington. “That doesn’t exist anywhere that I know.”

But for Washington, it’s a goal worth pursuing.

“Imagine if everyone who was at the facility was a learner,” said Washington. “It’s an exciting time, there’s so much work to do, there’s so much farther that we can go. We acknowledge we can’t do it alone. Investing in this today is going to save us tomorrow.”

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