The Youth Justice Fund — A three person mission rehabilitating Southeast Michigan's formerly incarcerated community
Disclaimer: Not all the writers of this piece are POC. Although MiC is an exclusively POC space, we felt this piece was important to share as a collaborative work as it upholds the standards, values and mission of MiC.
Navigating the return to everyday life for formerly incarcerated individuals is no small feat. Youth Justice Fund (YJF), a non-profit based in Ypsilanti MI, works to assist formerly incarcerated youth reacclimating to society. Executive Director Aaron Kinzel, who spent 10 years in the prison system, aims to provide mental and financial support to get formerly incarcerated individuals back on their feet.
YJF’s website thoroughly explains the mission, stressing healing, reconnection and education as core values and ultimate goals for each client and the non-profit at large. Within these values, there exists a commitment to securing housing, employment and transportation. Financially, YJF aims to assist clients with paying their rent, DTE or water bills, as well as provide them with food. For those with small children, YJF looks to provide diapers, formula or other necessities.
Last year, founder Deborah Labelle led a retreat in Dexter, Michigan for the Incarcerated Children Advocacy Network, ICAN, and YJF clients. YJF clients participated in outdoor activities, such as fishing and swimming — activities they couldn’t experience as youth in the criminal justice system. Not only were there recreational activities, but the retreat also focused on trauma therapy and discussing mental health to provide YJF clients with support, a sense of community and understanding among each other. YJF is currently seeking $5,000 to lead another retreat this year.
The stigma surrounding people with a criminal past in tandem with the pandemic has led to a rapid decrease in available jobs and has made finding employment even more difficult for YJF clients and returning citizens everywhere. These challenges have made YJF’s efforts to help clients apply for unemployment insurance among other government benefits within the past few months even more influential.
Struggling to reintegrate
Pat Bates, a member of YJF who met Kinzel at a panel a week out of prison, reflected on his own experience transitioning back home and the support he received from YJF.
“What I didn’t want to do was come home and be selling drugs or committing crimes or anything like that, but I also didn’t want to be somebody’s slave,” Bates said. “With Aaron and the Youth Justice Fund they found me opportunities. The biggest resource that I’ve had since I’ve been home is the Youth Justice Fund.”
Since Bates’s return home, YJF has provided him immense aid, including a car that has made his career pursuits more feasible. Additionally, Kinzel has pushed Bates to pursue higher education beyond the Associates degree he earned prior to his incarceration.
“[Bates] had an associates degree while he was in the system, but I’m going to make sure I push Bates further because he’s a smart individual,” Kinzel said. “When he comes to a bump in the road I can say, ‘Bates, you know what, steer a little left, this is what I did.’ And if he needs resources I can connect him with people, give him a little financial, whatever he needs to make sure that he keeps climbing that hill.”
Bates explained that without support and resources, many returning citizens resort to committing crime for the sake of survival. Kinzel admitted that, upon his return, he considered robbing people while struggling to acclimate to society.
“The one thing about people who come home (from prison) is that we are very proud, but that pride can get us into trouble because we don’t have these resources or opportunities,” Bates said. “So we might go take another pass, so to speak.”
Kinzel elaborated, emphasizing that in many communities with high rates of crime and poverty, there are few to no resources to help former inmates get back on their feet.
“We know these communities, we know what it’s like living in poverty, living in crime-ridden areas without opportunities or resources,” Kinzel said. “Coming home now all these years later, it’s been like a new prison experience in a weird way. When you go into prison you have to learn this new environment, you have to adapt. But then when you come home it’s almost like the same thing….You have to build a reputation, you have to make connections and network and (find) people who are on your team.”
This “new prison” experience that Kinzel described comes from an intense societal stigma against formerly incarcerated individuals. Kinzel highlighted the stark variation in mental health resources based on a community’s affluence. In most privileged environments, Kinzel suggested that emotional support is far more accessible.
“A 16-year-old kid kills themselves in a privileged community,” Kinzel said. “There’s all types of trauma counseling and therapy for them in high school. But an eight-year-old kid in the city of Detroit sees death and murder all the time and they get a teddy bear and maybe a t-shirt and balloons.”
The essence behind Kinzel’s example is clear: Socioeconomic divisions play a major role in access to healthcare and, by extension, strongly shape the way children learn to cope with trauma and violence in adulthood.
“We’re broken little boys in really tough communities and then we have to become hardened, aggressive, hyper masculine teenagers, to prove ourselves in a community where we had to survive,” he said.
Therein lies a central problem — a societal ignorance about where formerly incarcerated individuals like Bates and Kinzel “come from.” This lack of understanding produces a sense of indifference toward civilians coming out of the criminal justice system and disregards the traumatic circumstances that might have led them into the system in the first place.
The gap between socially conscious and unconscious individuals in regard to the prison system and larger American systems remains drastic. This persistent ignorance perpetuates a stigma that formerly incarcerated individuals are unworthy or lesser members of society, presenting a significant barrier for them when finding sustainable employment opportunities.
The pervasive stigmas encountered by returning citizens are not only unfair, but also untrue. Incarcerated individuals often hold leadership positions during their sentences — which enforce a large variety of clerical and critical skills — but employers don’t value these experiences when they’re compared to applicants with a more traditional work background.
“Just think about a guy in prison who’s the man of the yard,” Bates said. “You might have one guy that was a law clerk, a paralegal in a law library, you got another guy and he’s a 4.0 student in Jackson college, the only college they offer, and you might have another guy who was in the recreation department and he was coordinating all types of events and activities, huge things that people out here get paid really good to do. That’s what I was. I was the rec official, I organized events and everything. But then you come out here and you’re just a piece of shit. You’re nothing. You were important in prison —just think about the culture shock in that alone.”
Without any structure in place to aid the return of formerly incarcerated citizens, Kinzel emphasized how important participation from businesses around Ann Arbor is. Employers like Phillis Engelbert, owner of the Lunchroom LLC and the Detroit Street Filling Station, have become a key resource for rehabilitative pursuits. Though small businesses should not be the backbone of these community efforts, their contributions can be incredibly impactful. Engelbert speaks openly of her passion for criminal justice reform through helping individuals with employment, accountability and rehabilitative spaces, and patrons of both her restaurants know the importance behind these principles.
“Phyllis is a prime example with The Lunchroom,” Kinzel said. “Maybe some of you have connections or family that might own a business — if they’re willing to hire someone that’s been in the system, that’s a huge help. Or just taking donations at businesses too is another way. Or volunteers, interns, to just kinda get the word out that this is something that we need to build as a community.”
Engelbert has found incredible success in doing just that and her businesses are both financially stable and creating rehabilitative communities.
“(My employees) are the brightest bright spot. Our crew is upbeat, professional, responsible, caring and accountable to the business and each other. They are a pleasure to be around. It is because of their hard work that our business is succeeding,” she wrote in the Detroit Street DisBatesch.
“I don’t want handouts for my clients,” Kinzel said. “But I want them to get a helping hand and that first step so they can become productive citizens and people that are community members.”
Of course, money is what pays the bills, and returning citizens often come away from the prison system with very little. But a network of volunteer positions, internships and connections make one person’s efforts, like Phyllis’, more sustainable in the pursuit toward community enrichment.
Both Kinzel and Bates emphasized the toxicity of performative activism, imploring University students, white allies and those from wealthy, Eurocentric-based backgrounds to invest in their communities and engage in on-the-ground, tangible support in order to catalyze justice reform.
“I think what a lot of people who come from privileged areas think is that they're gonna come in and save the day,” Kinzel said. “You know, they throw a little money sometimes in the system or they volunteer, and then they’re good. That’s not what’s gonna change society. We need people that are from privileged communities, we need all races, all ethnicities, all religions, everybody. We all need to work together to fight oppression.”
Kinzel emphasized the importance of letting those who have been oppressed guide our communities in the right direction. He referred to a tendency amongst privileged individuals to participate in protest for the sake of performative signage and social media posts, only to return to the comfort of their homes an hour later, feeling as though they have changed the world. He proposed more productive alternatives, like engaging in mentorship programs, advocating for policy reform, challenging personal biases and prejudices and supporting previously incarcerated individuals in their career search.
“We need people that are gonna treat us like human beings, we need people that can be mentors. College students need to reach out to some of my participants and help them get navigated.”
For college students looking to help returning citizens, Kinzel is constantly looking for mentors and tutors for his participants that are starting their higher education or working in the Ann Arbor or Detroit area.
“But the thing is you have to actually come and be a part of these communities,” Bates said. “Come and dig in the trenches with us, get your hands dirty. I’d like to see more actual work than crying and shouting.”
Systems and cyclic oppression
Questions about prison reform and policing –– such as community policing, police budgets and the prison industrial complex and their relationship to civilian societies –– have been at the forefront of many American minds following an outburst of civil rights activism in recent months. Bates and Kinzel’s stories illuminate the urgency of disrupting the current system.
“(The prison system) was designed and is doing exactly what it was intended to do — which is to marginalize, oppress and control certain populations. And these are populations that are living in poverty, populations that are predominantly and desperately impacted as communities of color, these are people that to society, — at least the elites in the world and to politicians — are throw away people.”
Kinzel explained that the corporate entity behind the prison system is what makes the operation so powerful — similar to slavery, incarceration is economically “too big to fail.” As Kinzel puts it, “It’s the best experiment in United States history of business malpractice.”
The University of Michigan is a community largely revered for its diverse intellect and passion for social justice; however, Kinzel discussed how it often feels as though universities exploit these communities and individuals for research purposes.
“I work part time for the University of Michigan as faculty on the Dearborn campus and I see it in Dearborn, I see it in Ann Arbor,” Kinzel said. “They want to do this research, they want to get the stories from people like myself and Bates, but they don’t invest much in us and those communities. It saddens me and angers me simultaneously. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t people with good intentions in these spaces, but I think overall universities very often become corporate bureaucracies and are just trying to make a buck off of us.”
In positions of privilege, such as our own — being the University student body — we must confront and actively work to uplift these communities, no matter how distant they seem from our lives at U-M.
Aforementioned opportunities to do so, such as tutoring, and serving as a prominent academic or professional mentor for these returning citizens, is one way to pursue helpful contributions.
Bates and Kinzel remind us that we are capable of incredible change when we work as a collective.
“Let’s be real, the people in power are more wealthy.....if you don’t get wealthy white folks on board for justice reform, shit’s not gonna happen,” Kinzel said. “But we also need Black folks, we need Indigenous people, we need Latinx people, we need Hispanics, and Arab Americans — everybody’s gotta be sitting at this table. But, when I say we’re holding hands, it’s gotta be equal. But help us, those who have lived the oppressed experience, help us lead you in the right direction. Because we know the answers.”
Check out the Youth Justice Fund’s volunteer and donation page here.