We thought we’d need only a third of the conference room at the county sheriff’s community center. But by 6 p.m., so many people were coming in that one of the partitions was pulled back. As a line formed at the sign-in table, and the other partition also was removed. We ended up filling the room.

The mood was electric as old friends recognized one another, hugged greetings, and introduced their families. By 6:55, all the seats were taken, people were standing along the side and back walls, and others were watching on a large TV in the outer waiting room.

What warmed this avid crowd that cold day in February was a shared past address: the forty or so guests of honor were all former inmates of the Michigan Department of Corrections.

People who have committed felonies, been found guilty, and incarcerated used to be called “ex-cons.” I think of them as “returned citizens.”

I organized the meeting with a nonprofit called A Brighter Way to bring together groups that help former prisoners renew their lives. Most are emerging into a world vastly different than the one they knew before they were imprisoned.

“It is always harder to adjust to leaving prison than to enter,” Leroy Pickett tells me. “When you leave, you’re on your own and have to establish the things you do daily. Prison days have a routine, and when you enter, that occupies you pretty much all day except when you sleep. Relying on yourself alone is tough when you have been told totally what to do and when.”

Pickett spent twenty-six of his fifty-four years in fourteen different MDOC facilities. Now out for seven years, he acts as an informal mentor to people released more recently.

I saw this in action at our first meeting. Neatly dressed and cordial, he alternated between being in person with me and talking on the phone. He later explained that it was a “disconsolate ‘troubled’ phone friend who I needed to befriend.”

I didn’t ask him about the crime that put him away, but he talks freely about how his life took a wrong turn.

“My mother passed away when I was six,” he says, so he was raised by his grandmother. “She was straightforward and tough but always enthusiastic and never wallowed in self-pity. ‘Don’t you ever go out and embarrass me,’ she often said.

“She worked at cleaning nice homes many hours a day. I always abided by her admonitions because she really cared for me and I would never fail in that belief … When she died, I went bad, because I got mixed up with the wrong crowd.”

That led him to prison. “In prison there is a rustle and bustle,” he says. “You are in a caged animalistic environment. No one looks at you like a human being, and there is an unspoken but real missing existence of truth.

“People lie because they know nothing else. Lying is the norm. There’s just a taboo [against] trust and honesty. Integrity must all come from within.”

He found that in his memories of his grandmother. “When my prison terms ended, I knew some of her core values were embedded in me,” he says. “I realized she was the heart and soul of my life. She taught me right is right, wrong is wrong, and everything in between was up to me.”

“Who has made a mistake in their lives?” asks Ari Weinzweig, cofounder of Zingerman’s and an employer of released prisoners who need jobs. This is a question he often asks groups where he speaks.

All raise their hands. “Who has made a mistake today?” All hands go up. “I raise mine too,” he recounts. “We have all made mistakes. I’ve made lots of them.

“Many of us get through a mistake or get away with it. Or we forgive folks who looked the other way or forgave or let us apologize and rebuild trust.

“But some of us don’t get that second chance. For reasons of systemic bias, or bad luck, or no backup resources, we were not around folks who could pull strings to help us. Sometimes folks end up in prison.

“But just because that happened to them–justified or not–there is no reason not to give them a second chance.

“We have hired some returning citizens who have been awesome,” Weinzweig says. “Has every one of them worked out? No.

“But neither has every college graduate. The more we can help those trying to get their lives back in the right direction, the better they become.”

Just down Detroit St. from Zingerman’s Deli, Phillis Engelbert also hires returned citizens at the Detroit Street Filling Station. “Every one of us needs a new chance at some time in life,” she says. “I made it my way to help others and have employed more than 100 folks whose past records I know in general but whose futures I want to help them build.” And three years ago, Engelbert helped launch the nonprofit Youth Justice Fund to aid returning citizens sentenced to prison at a young age.

There are roughly 38,000 people in Michigan’s prisons, according to Kyle Kaminski, MDOC’s legislative liaison. The good news is that the number has been declining–it was about 44,000 five years ago, and 51,000 ten years before that.

Last year, 8,600 people were released on parole, and about 500 were discharged without a term of supervision. The other good news is that fewer are going back.

Fifteen years ago, Kaminski says, 47 percent of parolees had a serious parole violation or were convicted of a new crime within three years of discharge. For the most recent group tracked, it was 29 percent.

Kaminski attributes the drop to a shift to evidence-based programming and supervision techniques, including increased availability of substance abuse programming and a greater focus on post-release employment and self-sufficiency.

“Michigan’s reentry system is one of the strongest and most mature in the country,” Kaminski says. It tries to address both the risks and needs of offenders, like education and employment training.

The state will help prisoners secure driver’s licenses or state IDs prior to their release as well as vital documents like birth certificates. Afterwards, it will pay transitional housing costs for up to ninety days for eligible individuals. Locally, that program is managed under contract by Catholic Social Services of Washtenaw County (CSSW).

When Pickett was due to be released, he moved into a CSSW house. “Housing, employment, and transportation are the three parts of my new life that I knew I had to handle first after serving my time,” he says. He’s now working at Ruth’s Chris steakhouse and rents an apartment on the southeast side.

Peg Bravo, CSSW’s president and CEO, says they’ve been working with the MDOC since 2006. “We have broad collective experience in forensic psychology, social work, and criminal justice to help the parolee population,” Bravo says. “We see the value of giving people a new start after incarceration.”

“Successful reintegration back into society … is much more than meeting basic needs,” says CSSW program manager Virginia Willey. “We are keenly aware of societal prejudices, community barriers, and life stressors our clients encounter when released.”

Kaminski calls this work “navigation support,” because CSSW staff help guide the transition from prisoner to returned citizen.

“I’ve seen people in prison persevere through barriers and obstacles that I could not overcome if faced with the same circumstances,” offers CSSW resource specialist Kristin Anderson. “I had a female client who gave birth to a son in prison. When paroled, she came to live at our housing. She soon found two jobs. Our offender success program allows our clients to work miracles” as they return to society.

Executive director Cozine Welch describes A Brighter Way as a small group of motivated people who want to “go figure” what society can do for returned citizens. Welch recently succeeded founding executive director Aaron Suganuma. Al Newman, longtime area entrepreneur, chairs the board and guided ABW in obtaining its nonprofit status.

ABW provides education on the challenges returned citizens face and supports them through individual and group mentoring.

“Coming back after a long prison term requires relearning all the basics of life you first encountered as a youth and teenager,” says Pickett. “It is not written down in a book or a syllabus for a class on how to reenter or how to talk about the cause of your prison term. Mentors are a huge need for returnees to learn the structure of life in the world.”

“Mentoring can be a key aspect in individuals navigating this system successfully,” agrees MDOC’s Kaminski. There are mentoring programs in many Michigan prisons. Some are prisoner-to-prisoner, while others use volunteers from outside. Some are secular, but many are organized by religious groups.

“Early on, success was often simply the absence of failure in terms of returning to prison,” Kaminski says. “That has now shifted, and while recidivism is an aspect of success, so are employment, job retention, and self-sufficiency.

“As we look forward, the question ultimately is how can the state and communities more effectively engage to support additional measures of success, such as family reunification, the reduction of poverty, the increase in educational attainment including post-secondary credentials, and an increased sense of agency for the individual and involvement in the community.

“That will take renewed discussion among the various stakeholders about how to achieve these goals,” he continues, “This will also include discussion of what resources exist in the community, where redundancies exist, where gaps remain, and ultimately how these resources can be leveraged by those who would benefit from them …

“One of the major challenges for MDOC is there are countless well-intentioned people and groups, but coordination is a real issue in some areas. The MDOC has worked on structure through regional administrative agencies and the steering teams that are supposed to help guide them.

“One thing I continually stress is to determine which aspect of reentry is best for these groups. Focus on that.” To work together effectively, volunteer groups “need to focus on organizing and seeking to provide a specialized service consistently and effectively.” Kaminski recommends that those interested in helping speak to Catholic Social Services and be prepared to take a realistic look at how they collectively meet an unmet need in the community.

Though coordination remains a challenge, “Ann Arbor has lots of good people who want to help us succeed,” says Joe Johnson, who was incarcerated for thirty-eight years before his release in January 2019. “ABW helps me with a mentor and road map to navigate the new streets rather than me just returning to my old haunts where trouble used to be around every corner.”

Malachi Muhammad, forty-six, ended his twenty-nine-year sentence last November. He talked by phone with ABW’s Suganuma before his release, and after getting out was hired as a dishwasher by Engelbert. That lowly job, Engelbert points out, “has grown in importance in virus times just since he joined our team.” But the virus also shrank dine-in business, so she had to let him go.

He’s found another food-service job in Detroit and plans to move there. Meanwhile, he’s mentoring others through A Brighter Way.

“Just becoming a part of the ABW team gave me purpose and activities to look forward to every day,” Muhammad says. “I matter, and my life means something good to help others.

“I also benefited from the understanding and risks on people like me with prison records taken by business owners like Phillis Engelbert and Ari Weinzweig,” Muhammad adds. “They have provided jobs for lots of qualified and able returning citizens desirous to renew their lives.”

“The better they do, we do,” says Weinzweig. “And the better our community does. Often, returning citizens are doubly motivated to do a good job. They want to show the world they can do it.

“Why not take a chance at helping someone who could use a second shot?” he asks. “I think we have great things to gain.”

This article has been edited since it was published in the September 2020 Ann Arbor Observer. A reference to the foundation of the Youth Justice Fund has been corrected.