Legislators, formerly incarcerated activists speak on reentry after prison

Tuesday, February 25, 2020 - 10:41pm

Cozine Welch, the Executive Director of A Brighter Way, discusses the struggles of returning to society in a life after prison at the Washtenaw County Sheriff's Department Tuesday evening.

Cozine Welch, the Executive Director of A Brighter Way, discusses the struggles of returning to society in a life after prison at the Washtenaw County Sheriff's Department Tuesday evening. Buy this photo
Michael Bagazinski/Daily

A Brighter Way, an organization helping previously incarcerated individuals transition back into society, held a discussion Tuesday in the Learning Resource Center at the Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Office. 

The event featured a panel of government legislators and previously incarcerated people, who discussed how citizens returning to society once they are released from prison. The event was attended by more than 100 community members, many of whom were previously incarcerated themselves.

Cozine Welch, executive director of ABW, shared what prompted him to create the organization and event.

Welch said he served a 19-year-and-nine-month sentence in Michigan prisons after being convicted at 17. He said having strong mentors when he was released from prison helped him realize he could make a change in other formerly incarcerated people’s lives.

Welch said his experience going through the prison and then the parole process makes him a good mentor for others.

“I realized that my personal history is a part of what forged the path for me to make communication and connection with people so we can resolve the issue as much as we can,” Welch said.

State Sen. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, and Kyle Kaminski, Legislative Liaison for the Michigan Department of Corrections, described resources provided to people recently released from prisons. Kaminski said he doesn’t feel there are enough resources for citizens returning home from prison. 

“I don’t think we’ve done enough as a state,” Kaminski said. “I think we’ve done a lot compared to other states, but there’s a lot of opportunity to make things better, and I think we’ve made some progress over the last few years, but I think there’s more progress to be made. … These types of discussions can have a far greater impact on communities around the state than most people are willing to recognize.”

Irwin shared his thoughts on the need for emotional support resources for those who have just returned home after being incarcerated.

“There’s the mental, emotional and social side of it,” Irwin said. “That is very important and there are some policy things that we need to be doing in Lansing to address those issues as well.”

Malachi Muhammad, employee at The Lunch Room and formerly incarcerated person, said for many returning home who are Black or Latinx, there is a lack of mental health support, due to preexisting cultural stigmas in each group. 

Mary Heinen McPherson, co-founder of the U-M Prison Creative Arts Project, also discussed struggles regarding mental health. She said she felt left behind by half of her former friends and family and was unable to contact the people she had formed bonds with while in prison due to MDOC regulations.

“When I came home, I was lonely,” Heinen McPherson said. “My whole life had been inside of a prison along with those of us that were all locked up together. So, to live with everyone that you knew all those years in four different prisons and then come home and be told, ‘It’s a violation of your parole if you have contact with anybody,’ you’re like, ‘What the hell am I going to do now?’ Everybody that you knew and loved was inside. I was ostracized from the community.”

Heinen McPherson shed light on the unique struggles that she encountered as a formerly incarcerated woman. 

“I can tell you that out of the thousands of women that I knew all those years and that I know now,” Heinen McPherson shared. “I don’t know anybody that didn't suffer some major trauma, sexual assault, abuse or some terrible thing that shaped what happened to them before, mostly during, and after prison. With women, the primary consideration is children and family. There’s a lot of drama around kids and what’s happened to the mama and the grandma. And that’s something that we don’t talk about much.”

As the Q&A session began, Kaminski discussed the ways in which formerly incarcerated individuals are often discriminated against while attempting to secure housing. He said landlords often use a felony as a proxy for race when looking at possible tenants. 

“I think a lot of landlords use criminal history, which is an allowable exclusion, as a proxy for not allowed exclusions, like race,” Kaminski said. “I think folks need to be really careful about that, because why are they excluded based on criminal history?”

Irwin talked about eliminating the box on job or school applications that asks whether an applicant has committed a felony.

“We need our government to pass laws like ‘Ban the Box,’” Irwin said. “We need our government to rebuild these kinds of programs in the community like we used to have that would support returning prisoners. I think this really connects directly to this whole question of, ‘How do we help businesses feel comfortable hiring returning prisoners? How do we help landlords feel comfortable renting to these folks?’”

Welch also talked about the importance of voting and getting involved with politicians to pass legislation that will help formerly incarcerated people as well as those currently incarcerated.

“Pressure your legislator and vote,” Welch said. “Secondary one is to ask employers at places that you frequent, ‘Do you have people who are returning citizens?’ If they say, ‘No,’ ask them, ‘Why?’ Tell them that you want them to, in order for you to spend your money there.”

Ken Dairiki, a senior at Eastern Michigan University, said he learned a lot about how to be a more educated member of the community.

“(I took away a lot about) recidivism in Washtenaw County and what we can do as a community and more importantly what knowledge I can learn from people who have experiences in recidivism,” Dairiki said.

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