Tenisha Yancey, a representative from the 1st District of the Michigan House of Representatives who has two felonies and two misdemeanors on her record, spoke on Saturday about how she became successful despite her criminal record. As the first keynote speaker at the Confined Minds II: Education, Programming, Incarceration conference, Yancey explained how she was able to use her education to become a successful attorney and Michigan congresswoman, despite the numerous people who told her she couldn’t due to her criminal history.

Alongside Yancey, state legislators, educators, students and community leaders joined inmates at Macomb Correctional Facility to discuss the importance of education and programming in prisons. The event ran from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. and consisted of keynote speakers and panels on higher education and recidivism, programming in prisons, restorative justice and Inside-Out.

The event was hosted by The Michigan Theory Group, which is comprised of incarcerated and non-incarcerated people aimed at fostering productive dialogue about the criminal justice system and its societal impacts. The group is an extension of the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, an international program that brings college students into prisons to take classes with incarcerated people and challenges both the “inside” and “outside” students to listen and learn from each other.

Inside-Out has been implemented at more than 150 colleges and universities in 46 states, in 12 different countries and in more than 200 correctional facilities. Inside-Out Founder Lori Pompa said the program aims to create a sense of equality and kinship between the prisoners and college students and foster an open-minded dialogue. According to Pompa, the classes are primarily taught seminar-style and try to transform teaching styles from “sage on the stage to guide on the side.”

Bantu Dawson, Theory Group member and an incarcerated individual, said Inside-Out was a catalyst for both social and academic change for himself and others at Macomb Correctional Facility. He claimed it offers a path for self-redemption.

Fellow Theory Group member and inmate Jemal Tipton discussed how Inside-Out is much more than just a classroom and how his experiences in the program changed his perspective on his role in society.

“You come in, and you think it’s just an educational experience,” Tipton said. “You don’t think it would change how you view the world and how you view your part in the world, and that’s what I think Inside-Out does — it makes me and a lot of the people I have interacted with take a look at the way we are in the world, individually and collectively.”

Theory group member John “Cowboy” Conklin is also incarcerated. He joined Inside-Out in 2007 and said being a part of the program gave him his hope and dignity back after being imprisoned for 30 years and counting. He described the treatment of inmates and how Inside-Out was able to provide an avenue for him to feel human again.

“When you first take the Inside-Out class after being treated like a number, not like a name, more like an animal, you walk in there and get treated as an equal human being,” Conklin said. “They give you a piece of your humanity back, and once you get a taste of that humanity, you don’t want it to quit. It is something you haven’t experienced in a very long time, for me it had been almost 30 years. And I mean, I been in 41 years and I got a taste of that humanity and I plan on keeping it as long as I can.”

However, according to Deputy Warden George Stephenson, Inside-Out is just one of approximately 30 programs at Macomb Correctional Facility. He claimed the facility is able to have so many due to available resources and volunteers, but many prisons nationwide and in Michigan are not as fortunate.

Inmate Tore Price, Theory Group member and general manager of Aioli’s II, the restaurant at the facility, said substance-abuse programs were essential to his transformation. He said not only did programs like Narcotics Anonymous help him help himself, they allowed him to give back to the community and help other inmates going through similar struggles.

Another well-liked, transformative program at Macomb Correctional Facility is Chance for Life. According to founder and President Thomas Adams, the faith-based program is in nine prisons and its goal is to change how inmates think, which will, in turn, change their actions.

“What we learned, way back when, is that it does not matter what you give a person, it matters how they think,” Adams said. “Anything you give them, if they don’t process information differently, then when they go out, they commit the same crimes and function in the same way. When we go into the institutions, we basically build mediation centers, so we’re teaching people how to solve their own problems from a peaceful perspective.”

However, the goal of the conference was not just to educate attendees about different programs at prisons — it was to demonstrate how dedicated incarcerated people can be to transforming their mindset and changing their lives.

Attendee Yusef Shakur, a formerly incarcerated individual and current Social Work student at the University of Michigan, is a self-described former “gang-banger.” Shakur has been out of prison for 18 years and has used his time to self-reflect and improve. He said programming in prisons is so important because everyone has the potential to contribute positively to society, but factors like a lack of education or access can prevent those contributions.

“There’s, like, these weeds,” Shakur said. “These weeds that are preventing that flower from growing. It’s there, it’s that rose. But there’s all this stuff around it and you have to be able to remove that. So that self-education of learning about who you are to appreciate and get a certain amount of love to emerge so you can see the value of a different type of education, you can see the value of how to contribute to society that can be greater than what we see today.”

Shakur said the men inside the facility have been dedicated to their journey of self-redemption and he discussed the importance of empathy and forgiveness toward the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated. He claimed the United States has a history of committing worse crimes than the people in prisons, and he questioned why some people can forgive the U.S. but not the prison population.

“What I admire the most are the men inside who was once boys, who was once considered criminals or whatever and they transformed their lives,” Shakur said. “And showing that we all have a story of redemption; we all have a story of transformation. And the fact that we live in a country that has committed the most heinous crimes ever of enslaving a group of people, murdering a group of people, and the fact that we forgive them, why can’t we forgive these men?”

Attendee and panelist David LaGrand represents the 75th District in the Michigan House of Representatives. LaGrand discussed how, during re-entry, it can be difficult for the formerly incarcerated to find work due to having a public criminal record. He said, to resounding applause, he wants to introduce automatic expungement in Michigan.

“Only 6 percent of people who are eligible for expungement actually get it done, and that’s because you need a lawyer and you need money,” LaGrand said. “I am advocating for automatic expungement in Michigan. Right now, the gate is very narrow, there are a lot of people who aren’t eligible because they have a couple of misdemeanors on their record, they can’t get a felony expunged. I want to change that.”

LaGrand said he wants to create more economic equality and opportunities for people of all socioeconomic statuses in the criminal justice system. He said, for example, affluent people can hire lawyers to get criminal offenses off their records, but others do not have the same luxury.

“The criminal justice system works fairly well if you’re middle class or affluent — it doesn’t work very well if you’re poor,” LaGrand said. “I am very urgent that we do a better job of making sure that we’re not simply locking people up because they don’t have money.”

Tipton said a common problem with programming in prisons is that they are only available to those who are close to their release date. He said this takes the opportunity away from other inmates to learn, develop and grow. Tipton advocated for programs like Inside-Out and Chance for Life to be required upon entry into prison.

“I want them to make some of these programs requirements for paroles and things like that because if you just give people certain programs, they may not get it,” Tipton said. “But if you give people programs that deal with their overall makeup, the mind, the body, the soul, and again how we interact, I think that would change people’s lives. For a lot of the programs, you have to be close to your out date. A lot of us are not close to our out date, so that’s why we’re so grateful for programs like Inside-Out and Chance for Life, because there’s not a prerequisite where you have to be close to your out date.”

Social Work student Megan Diebboll, a member of the Prison Creative Arts Project at the University of Michigan, said a crucial aspect of changing the way incarcerated people are viewed during both their time in prison and upon reentry is just listening to them.

“If we’re really wanting to take a stance in criminal justice, you have to have the voices of those who have lived experiences backing it up,” Diebboll said.

Shakur agreed with Diebboll and discussed how, while listening to those who have been incarcerated is a great first step, a lot more needs to be done. He claimed the system itself is unproductive, unfair and results in an endless cycle of incarceration for some communities.

“For prison reform to manifest itself in the way we desire, then the people most impacted by it have to lead that movement,” Shakur said. “We’re producing money but we’re not investing it back in our communities and our neighborhoods that are broken and that are producing broken men and broken women. If prisons become the opportunity to so-called restore these human beings, then we’re failing them and we’re failing society.”

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