'You will see you don’t belong': Formerly incarcerated students, community members find difficulties navigating ‘U’ environment

Thursday, January 30, 2020 - 8:47pm

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design by Erin Ruark

Cozine Welch holds multiple positions at the University of Michigan, including managing editor of The Michigan Review of Prisoner Creative Writing, co-instructor of the Prison Creative Arts Project, researcher for the Carceral State Project and producer of the “While We Were Away” podcast, among others. Welch is not a student at the University but hopes to enroll in an MBA program in the fall. 

In addition to occupying these roles, Welch was formerly incarcerated for 20 years in the state of Michigan and since then has worked to publicize and fight the injustices within the carceral system in this country. 

Welch spends most of his day on the University campus, but is unable to find housing nearby due to the high cost of living in Ann Arbor, as well as the discrimination that those with a felony record face in renting a home.

Welch said that after almost three years of working in Ann Arbor he is still living at friends’ homes. He said the process of divulging prior incarceration records to landlords, through checking a criminal history box, feels personally demoralizing.

“I still can’t find housing,” Welch said. “I’m really still staying here off the kindness of a friend. I’m trying to find housing, and maybe now I will since I’m doing this campaign (fighting against ‘the box’ on housing and employment applications) but that's the reality of Ann Arbor. (The issue) is the price point and the fact that you have a felony.”

This also occurs with applications to the University of Michigan’s undergraduate and graduate programs: students must disclose if they were formerly convicted of a felony.

The University does not admit students on parole, which often lasts three years, and requires applicants to check a box if they have a felony. This topic is currently being reviewed in many states as part of a larger debate over voting rights.

Welch said he feels unwanted on the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor campus. 

“If you come to Ann Arbor, you’re Black before you even get to whether or not you actually have a felony, right?” Welch said. “And if you walk down the street in Ann Arbor, you will see you don’t belong, because you don’t see anybody that looks like you. The only time you see somebody else that looks like you is in the reflection or a storefront. It’s based largely on the University because they’re like, ‘Well, that’s what Flint and Dearborn campuses are for.’”

Welch pointed out the disparities between the Flint and Dearborn campuses in comparison to the Ann Arbor campus, specifically noting the diversity of Flint and Dearborn classes.

“(Those campuses are) underserved, under-staffed, under-everything satellite campus,” Welch said. “I’ve guest lectured at Dearborn a couple of times and when you go to Dearborn, you’re like, ‘Oh, this is what collegiate life should look like; my class looks really diverse.’”

School of Social Work alum Yusef Shakur is an activist, author and formerly incarcerated person. He said he hopes the future may be different for other formerly incarcerated people looking to become involved in academia in Ann Arbor. 

Shakur said after talking with Lynn Videka, Social Work School dean, in the spring of 2019, the School of Social Work will no longer place a box asking about previous felony convictions of applications . The move follows pressure from the undergraduate campus organization “UMich Behind Bars.”

“We benefited from an undergrad organization,” Shakur said. “Once it happened with the undergrads, it was really up to every independent school to make their own decision … I did some research and put together some information, and when we had the meeting with the dean, we presented this and the dean okayed the new policy to ‘ban the box,’ as some people call it.”

Welch was involved with UMich Behind Bars and has touched on their work at Regents meetings, including the February 2019 meeting

Since Welch mostly works with people who are interested in fighting the stigma surrounding incarceration and improving conditions for those who are currently incarcerated, he said he doesn’t feel racially discriminated against on a daily basis but is still affected by “smaller” aspects of discrimination. 

“It’s strange, right?” Welch said. “Because for me, my background and my story is so much of my work that I don’t necessarily every day face the kind of prejudices that I know other people have. I have a friend who is also a (formerly incarcerated person) and works at a technology firm and his experience has been so different from (mine) on the micro level. Macro, we’ve kind of had the same experience, but on a micro level, day to day interactions, at the workplace, his has been completely different from mine.”

LSA senior Hannah Agnew, president of the student executive committee for PCAP, said she feels strongly about finding ways to eliminate the discrimination and social stigma surrounding those who return after being incarcerated. 

Agnew also spoke on the value of making Ann Arbor an inviting place for those of various backgrounds. During her time as a sociology major with a crime and justice minor, she said she has seen powerful insights directly from those who come from that background, rather than just reading about it.

“I think it’s really important to elevate the voices of folks who’ve experienced (incarceration) and know what the system is like,” Agnew said. “And in my personal experience, it is so important to have folks on campus that have been previously incarcerated because there’s nobody better to learn from.”

Welch said he worries about his future career at the University as the school hesitates to hire those previously convicted of a felony. He pointed to the story of his friend Asia Johnson, who was not hired despite being highly qualified for a job. The position entailed sharing her own story of incarceration and working with students to further the de-stigmatization of incarceration.

Johnson attended the University before she was convicted. She wasn’t able to speak to The Daily in time for publication, but she is continuing to pursue a career in reform and works as a bail disruptor for The Bail Project.

In an email to The Daily, University spokesperson Rick Fitzgerald said the University does not turn away students due solely to their previous conduct, but that it is taken into account.

“The University does not reject an applicant for admission solely because they answered ‘yes’ to a conduct question, nor does it determine applicant eligibility based on past conduct history,” Fitzgerald said. “Conduct is only reviewed after an applicant is determined to be admissible to the university based on a holistic review process.”

Welch is involved in multiple communities working to support those in Ann Arbor who have been previously incarcerated. A previously incarcerated person is still a person, Welch said. 

“This favorite quote of mine, ‘Education is the only thing given that cannot be taken,’” Welch said. “Oftentimes, we assume that just means like collegiate education and things like that, but really, any type of learning or growing. Spaces that (cultivate learning and growing) have to be created more in Ann Arbor because what I found from my own personal experience is that once someone learns who I am, is that I’m just a person, too.” 

He said it is important to focus on the humanity of those affected by incarceration while highlighting their struggles.

“I get sad, and you'd be surprised at the things that we have in common, but once you know that, ‘Oh my God, here’s this person that grew up completely different from me, but we have these things in common because we’re both people,’” Welch said.

Reporter Jenna Siteman can be reached at jsiteman@umich.edu