One of the most rewarding things about working for criminal justice reform is getting people interested in transforming our court and prison systems and watching the momentum for change build, both in Michigan and nationwide. So, when I got a call from Sean Wilkinson, a reporter and videographer from San Francisco who is representing the Michigan Justice Fund, I was honored to contribute. He wanted to learn more about Safe & Just Michigan and what I do daily as a community engagement specialist. I was glad to spend a day with him and give him a glimpse of the outreach work we do here at SJM.

On Feb. 22, I met with Sean. We went to local businesses, jails, and mental health facilities to give him as complete a picture possible about the scope of our work. We spoke with a Michigan state representative, local sheriffs, mental health workers and people whose loved ones are incarcerated, business owners and other criminal justice advocates. We even bumped into another member of the SJM team unexpectedly during the day — we really are busy everywhere.

Though SJM works on criminal justice reform policy at the state level, a lot of what we do is not actually done in legislator’s offices or the state Capitol. The Capitol is where we work to get better laws passed that will make our justice system more equitable and efficient while making our communities safer as well. We also work out in the community to let everyone know about the laws we’re hoping to pass, and how they can take advantage of newly passed laws like Clean Slate. That’s the job of community engagement specialists like myself and Rick Speck at SJM.

We are active throughout the state, because the issues we are concerned with touch people in every corner of Michigan. Not only do we meet with people who have been directly impacted by the justice system and their families, we also build networks with organizations in the business and faith communities as well. We’ve found that we share goals with groups as diverse as Americans for Prosperity, the ACLU and Michigan Faith in Action. We also meet with local community leaders and citizens from Monroe to Marquette. We all have a stake in criminal justice policy in our state.

However, Sean and I only had one day in Detroit, so this is how we spent it:


8 a.m.: Madcap Café, 1413 Farmer Street

SJM Community Engagement Specialist Ronnie Waters (far right) with, from left, Darryl Woods Sr. of Nation Outside, state Rep. Abraham Aiyash (D-Detroit) and Redeeming Kimberly founder Kimberly Woodson at the Madcap Cafe.

I started the day with Sean Wilkerson from the Michigan Justice Fund and Darryl Woods Sr. the Detroit regional coordinator for Nation Outside, who would be with us through much of the day. Also meeting us at the coffee shop was state Rep. Abraham Aiyash (D-Detroit) and Redeeming Kimberly founder Kimberly Woodson, who is a former juvenile lifer. We had a wide-ranging discussion:

  • Aiyash discussed the status of numerous bills and the possibility of sponsoring additional bills in the future.
  • Kim spoke about bills that could end the practice of sentencing juveniles to life without parole in Michigan. She suggested a collaboration on the “good time” proposal.
  • Darryl Woods Sr. spoke on voting rights for returning citizens and the legislation to end juvenile life without parole sentencing.

9:30 a.m.: FaceTime with Veronica Taylor, founder of Hardworking Moms Ministries

Veronica Taylor of Pontiac wanted to talk with us about potential collaboration with SJM and faith-based organizations in metro Detroit. Veronica is a minister who has never been incarcerated, but she works with people coming home from prison and has come to understand the challenges we face. She’s interested in doing an expungement event with SJM. Our organization has been offering expungement fairs and clinics around the state through partnerships with other organizations and government agencies over the past year, and we look to continue that work into the foreseeable future.

10 a.m.: Team Wellness Center: 11105 E. Jefferson St. 

We met up with Darryl Woods from Nation Outside again, as well as Team Wellness Center Director Karicia Carter and Marcus Kelley from Pathway for Success. Team Wellness is a network of community mental health and substance use treatment clinics in the metro Detroit area, while Pathway for Success is a nonprofit Kelley established to meet the mental health needs of his community. Kelley was wrongfully incarcerated and later proven to be innocent. His special interest is helping people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), especially people who have been incarcerated.

The ability of the criminal justice system to meet the needs of people with mental health challenges has been discussed a lot in recent years by families with incarcerated loved ones, people working in the justice system and mental health providers. The Michigan Joint Task Force on Jail and Pretrial Incarceration named diverting people with mental health challenges from the justice system as one of their 18 recommendations in 2020.

I was really interested to learn about the challenges faced by the staff at Team Wellness and the things they need to do their job more effectively. I heard they wanted more staff and more time with their patients. We talked about allocating more funds from the state for mental health, discharge planning for formerly incarcerated individuals suffering from post-traumatic disorder, and the possibility of creating a mental health discharge plan for inmates at least 30 days prior to their release.

11 a.m.: Goodwill industries: 2777 Grand River, Detroit MI

Met with Bishop Mbiyu Chui of the Shrine of the Black Madonna, Darryl Woods of Nation Outside, and Marcus Kelley. Our local Goodwill branch has provided assistance to more than 1,200 people in the last two years. Our meeting included a brief summary of the 12-week diversionary program for returning citizens, removing obstacles, providing resources, partnerships with CEO (Center for Employment Opportunities) New York, financial coaching, voter registration, and a nonpartisan initiative to encourage voting in all elections. Voting rights for formerly incarcerated people is an area of special interest for Nation Outside — and for me, personally. As soon as I came home from prison in 2000, I got busy volunteering for that year’s elections because I wanted to play an active role in my community and our government. I’m always glad to see other formerly incarcerated people doing the same.

Noon: William Dickerson Detention Facility, Wayne County Sheriff’s Department, 3501 Hamtramck Drive, Hamtramck

We met with high-ranking officials from Wayne and Genesee counties to discuss “Operation Clean Slate” with SJM Community Engagement Specialist Rick Speck and Nation Outside’s Darryl Woods. Meeting up with Rick was a special treat because I had no idea he’d be there. I was also happy to see him because it gave Sean another chance to see just how busy SJM is in the community. While we were at the detention facility, we talked about upcoming expungement fair events in Genesee County on May 4 and in Wayne County on May 11. We’ll have more details on those events soon.

1:30 p.m.: FaceTime with Earl Burton, a Michigan Liberation regional organizer

Earl Burton, a regional organizer for Michigan Liberation, discussed our mutual desires to get numerous bills passed, such as restoring good time credits. We also talked about future collaborations between SJM and Michigan Liberation. SJM values the partnerships and collaborations we’re building with organizations like Michigan Liberation and Nation Outside. Each of these groups brings their own unique perspectives and strengths to the table. SJM focuses on state-level policy change, for instance, while Nation Outside is an organization that is for formerly incarcerated people that is led by formerly incarcerated people. Michigan Liberation focuses on community organizing and grass-roots activity. We don’t see these groups as working in competition. Instead, we work together to make seemingly impossible goals a reality.

2:30 p.m.: Various places around Detroit

Since this was Sean’s first time in Detroit — and Michigan — I thought it was important to be a good host. I showed Sean some of Detroit’s highlights, like Comerica Park and the Fox Theater, and the rush of activity downtown that contradicts the stereotype of Detroit as a rusted out shell of a city. Plus, it gave Sean an opportunity to grab some photos and videos for his story.

No time!

I also scheduled two in-person meetings later that day, including one with Margaret Hall of CEO (Center for Employment Opportunities) Detroit and Jessica Taylor, executive director of Chance for Life. Chance for Life is a faith- and accountability-based program that operates inside prisons seeks to transform participants. I’ve seen the good work they do firsthand. However, these two meetings were postponed due to time constraints. Sean acknowledged he was overwhelmed with the events of the day. I had to admit, we’d been many places, talked with many people and seen a lot.

I contacted Ms. Taylor to apologize and made plans to come back on my own at a later time.

By the end of the day, I felt tired but satisfied. It had been a privilege to share the kind of work SJM does with a reporter who wanted to know more about criminal justice reform. I was proud to show him that even though SJM focuses on policy work, what we do isn’t confined to legislator offices or political rallies. We work with people everywhere, from coffee shops to jail cells and Zoom meetings. And we’ll keep working until Michigan has sensible criminal justice policies that work for everyone.

~ Ronnie Waters
Community Engagement Specialist