On Jan. 28, Joseph Johnson found a job at a car wash. While some people might consider that a small accomplishment, it was a defining moment for Johnson. Charged with armed robbery when he was 18, Johnson had just been released from prison three days earlier after serving nearly 39 years in prison.
"I didn't care about the job title. All I cared about was the opportunity to make a living for myself," Johnson says. "I wanted to show that I could do good and was willing to help myself. I wasn't looking for a handout, but rather a hand up."
Across Washtenaw County there are many people like Johnson who need help finding stability after returning from incarceration. Dealing with the stigma of being formerly incarcerated and finding housing and employment are just the more obvious challenges.
"These folks also need services that allow them to develop themselves for a better quality of life," says Cozine Welch, executive director of the Ann Arbor nonprofit A Brighter Way (ABW).
ABW was founded by a group of friends with first-hand experience dealing with the roadblocks facing those returning home from prison. Since 2015, the organization has been providing mentoring and other supportive services to formerly incarcerated people (and their family members) across the county. Funding from the United Way of Washtenaw County also allows them to increase awareness through community education events.
Johnson says Welch and the ABW team were a crucial part of his successful transition.
"They helped me learn to use the phone and took me to places I needed to go. They just helped with anything I needed to adapt and excel at being a returning citizen," he says.
Understanding the journey home
When explaining what returning citizens face, Welch reflects on his own journey. He was sentenced to 22 to 40 years in prison for a crime he committed when he was 17.
"I was 37 years old when I was released, but my real practical lived experience was as a 17-year-old," he says. "I was a teen coming home as a fully grown, physical adult who made some strides mentally, but there were some experiences I just didn't have."
Welch (who is also a co-instructor for the University of Michigan Prison Creative Arts Program's Atonement Project and Theatre and Incarceration courses) adds that people don't realize the real impact that the hyper-masculine and hyper-violent environment of prison has on the psyche.
"Then you are dropped back into society without adequate training and told to go home and just make it work somehow," he says.
He adds that it's like asking someone who hasn't driven in 40 years, and who has only driven
an automatic transmission, to jump on the highway with a manual transmission.
"You just have to keep up. You don't know how to keep up and you haven't had the benefits of everyone's lived experiences to keep up," he says.
Fostering community change in a pandemic
In the best of times, stepping back into society after incarceration can be likened to stepping into a different world. But returning in the midst of an unprecedented global pandemic "has given people a little more to wade through," according to Welch.
"The Michigan Department of Corrections has accelerated the parole process during COVID and that's definitely good," he says. "But more people are being released into an environment where the minuscule services that were in place to help them are all closed down and there are less employment options."
Currently, ABW remains a lighthouse for returning citizens, but the organization has found itself maneuvering through uncharted waters as it, too, seeks ways to stay afloat. Earlier this year, ABW had organized a campaign to raise $40,000 in match funds. Unfortunately, those who had agreed to help backed out, citing financial concerns in light of COVID-19.
"Luckily, also due to COVID, some other funding and grant opportunities came up," Welch says. "However, we still need help to ensure that our participants have the wraparound services and the tangibles that they need to be successful."
Johnson echoes Welch's sentiment and encourages others to help ABW so that others can benefit from their services as he did.
Having moved on from his job at the car wash, Johnson is now proud to be a manager at the Tim Hortons in Saline. He endured some precarious moments, however, when the friends he was staying with could no longer house him because a family member was immunocompromised.
"I had just finished training for Tim Hortons and they didn't want me going in and out of the house during COVID. There was real fear," Johnson says. "But I couldn't just let the job opportunity slip away and I also didn't want to make anyone sick."
He turned to friends and the ABW team, who all mobilized to help him make phone calls and sort out finances and other details. In the end, he landed in his own apartment. Now he says he's even able to "pay things forward." When a friend needed money to get a driver's license, Johnson gave him as much money as he could spare, recalling what it meant to have the same kind of uplift from ABW.
"I describe myself as a soldier for A Brighter Way. They were on the front lines for me and now I am on the front lines for them," Johnson says. "It's like what people are saying about the COVID situation. We all have to work together to make sure that everyone is okay."
From Welch's point of view, program participants moving into a position of being able to provide support to others is a marker of ABW's burgeoning success. His vision for the future is one of increased change, collaboration, and community outreach.
"Everyone needs to come to the table. Both returning citizens and community allies need to educate themselves about stigma and conditioning," he says. "We need to learn the same things together so that we can have a brighter tomorrow together."
For more Concentrate coverage of our community's response to the COVID-19 crisis, click here.
Jaishree Drepaul-Bruder is a freelance writer and editor currently based in Ann Arbor. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos courtesy of A Brighter Way.