The words Justin Counts heard from a man in a prison hospice care shook him to his core and turned him in a new direction.

“You don’t belong here,” the dying man said.

For a while, Justin wasn’t sure what the man meant. After all, they were both in prison, a place no one wants to be. Eventually, Justin understood. The man was telling him he was never meant to be in prison at all.

Those words deeply affected not only how Justin saw himself, but how he saw the people who were in prison with him. It was one of the many lessons he learned while incarcerated.

“Be slow to judge,” Justin said. “Understand life can go a lot of different ways. Sometimes, the way your life goes isn’t completely under your own control.”

He also learned that everyone is more than the worst thing they did. After all, Justin is so much more than a man who spent two years in a Michigan prison. He is the son of a firefighter. An Air Force veteran. An advocate for the homeless. And now, a development fellow for Safe & Just Michigan.

But seeing incarcerated people as more than a number wasn’t how he was raised. He grew up in New Jersey, brought up by his father and stepmother. He believed his mother had left the family — something he would learn years later wasn’t true. His mother was in a Michigan prison — a truth his father shielded from his son.

The direction of Justin’s life took a turn on 9-11. His high school was close enough to the World Trade Center that he watched from his high school roof as the second plane hit the Twin Towers, and he watched as they came crashing down. He decided that day that he wanted to carry on his family’s tradition of joining the Air Force, a tradition he could trace back to his great-grandfather.

Justin served for three years. Based in Seattle, he supported the transport of people and materials to Iraq. When his time with the military was done, he wanted to connect with his mother. That meant coming to where she was — in Jackson, Mich.

“I came out here to get to know her,” Justin said. “I hadn’t seen her since I was 7 or 8 years old.”

He found a woman who had been totally transformed, he said. She had put drug addiction behind her and was married to a preacher. She contended with the hardships familiar to many formerly incarcerated people — such as difficulty finding work — but she didn’t let that stop her. She dug into her passions to create her own businesses — first photography and then heat pressing images onto t-shirts and other items.

Reconnecting with her was a bright spot in an otherwise challenging situation, Justin said. He had worked as an aircraft technician in the Air Force, a career with few opportunities in Jackson. Few jobs were available. He only found temporary factory jobs with low pay that didn’t help him meet child support demands.

Around this time, Justin had his first negative encounter with law enforcement. He was arrested for having a small amount of marijuana — an amount that would have been legal today — and was sentenced to probation.

From what Justin experienced, “the system sets you up to fail.” The costs associated with probation — fines and fees and costs associated with monitoring and drug testing — only put him further behind with child support. That resulted in the state of New Jersey pulling his driver’s license without his knowledge. Then, he was arrested for driving on a suspended license.

“I didn’t do anything violent. I didn’t do any drug sales. Everything I did was related to finance — trying to figure out how to provide for my family and to cover the fees and fines,” Justin said.

It all culminated with Justin being sentenced to 2.5 years in prison. “I took it as a sign I had to ask myself, ‘Where did I go wrong and how do I get back on track.”

His search for answers took him to the prison library, where he checked out as many books as he could on every topic he wanted to learn about. He wanted to become a better dad, so he learned about parenting. He learned about adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, which can have long-lasting effects on a person’s life.

“If you have above a certain number of ACEs, it’s not ‘What’s wrong with you?’ but ‘What happened to you’,” Justin said.

He knew he wanted to be married someday, so he read up on how to be a good husband. As if on cue, he met his wife, Jerriann, in prison. She was working in the prison’s hospital, where Justin had also been assigned to work. The two had a strictly professional relationship while he was incarcerated, but he reconnected with her once he went home.

If finding good work in Jackson had been elusive before being incarcerated, it was even harder afterward. Justin struggled to find any work and took all jobs he was offered, even working as the Easter Bunny — something his parole officer found funny. Just as Justin was about to give up, a real job offer came in. First, he worked with the city of Jackson Parks and Recreation department. Then, for a local DishTV office, moving from a sales job to the office manager in two years.

Eventually, the Community Action Agency offered Justin a job. Community Action Agencies were created in 1964 as a part of the War on Poverty. Programs administered by the CAA include Head Start for early childhood education and the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program. Justin’s job included helping people pay off past-due utility bills and get caught up on rent in order to keep housing.

In fact, housing emerged as a focus of Justin’s work, and the Jackson Housing Commission asked him to join the organization as a case worker.

“I like helping people,” he said. “When I got to Jackson, there were no resources for me. If I had someone to help me, I may not have gone through this part of my story.”

With the Jackson Housing Commission, Justin helped create the Feed Thy Neighbor program at Reed Manor. The program’s goal is to foster a sense of community and combat loneliness while ending hunger at the same time. Feed Thy Neighbor brings residents together for mealtime. Watching friendships form and supportive relationships grow has been immensely rewarding for him. “I see people looking out for each other. It’s wonderful.”

Looking forward, he wants to focus on teaching financial literacy to youth. As the father of six children and grandfather of two, equipping young people with the skills they need to navigate life is critically important to Justin. It’s also why he’s a Game 4 Life club youth mentor in Jackson.

“I would like to mentor young boys. I want to talk about life skills. There aren’t enough positive role models who can help them understand the principles of financial literacy,” Justin said. And as he knows from his own life, not having a handle on personal finance can have dire consequences.

Working with Safe & Just Michigan Development Director Amy Smitter, Justin will pick up fundraising and grant writing skills he can use when he starts programs in his own community. Safe & Just Michigan believes everyone deserves second chances, including people who have been incarcerated, and that empowering justice-impacted people to achieve success benefits all of us.