By her own account, Erica Cederberg said she had a charmed life — until suddenly she didn’t. She was the head of her family’s business, was married and had two girls she adored. But then, in a desperate attempt to keep her family business afloat, she misappropriated funds. The decision led to seven years in prison, the dissolution of her marriage and years without seeing or hearing from her children. During this time, her mother and her sister passed away and the family business folded.
As losses stacked up, Erica began to see the world around her through newly opened eyes. Many of the people she met in prison had experiences that were substantially different from her own, and her preconceptions about how the world should work were vastly different from what happened in prison. It challenged her world view and led her to become more empathetic. It also forged her into a fierce advocate for criminal justice reform.
Today, Erica is a fund development fellow at Safe & Just Michigan, where she hopes to gain knowledge she needs to start a reentry nonprofit in her hometown of Saginaw, where services for people coming home for prison are sorely lacking.
“There is such a need in Saginaw,” Erica said. “We have so many people who are formerly incarcerated or incarcerated right now from this area. There’s nothing here to help them.”
Helping people isn’t new to Erica. Her family ran a funeral home business in Saginaw. Observing the thoughtful support provided to grieving families during her upbringing, helping others became an innate part of who she is.
When her father was diagnosed with terminal cancer, neither of her parents wanted the family business to end. Erica agreed to take it over. In the weeks before her father passed away, he gave her a crash course in running the family funeral home.
It didn’t take long, however, for Erica to realize she was in over her head. She soon saw that the business wasn’t running profitably and that turning it around wouldn’t be easy. In a desperate attempt to keep the funeral home from closing, she took money for prepaid funerals that should have been safely put into escrow accounts and used it for day-to-day operations. When the business was audited, the misappropriation was discovered.
It didn’t matter to the court that she wasn’t spending the money on luxuries or fancy trips, or that she had plans to pay it all back. She was convicted of conversion of funds with criminal intent and sentenced to seven years in prison.
She quickly learned what loss was.
Her husband quickly dropped her. “He was afraid and embarrassed that this would reflect on him,” Erica explained. And he made the same decision for their daughter, too, keeping Emily from having contact with Erica for several years. If that weren’t bad enough, she lost her mother shortly before she went to prison, and her sister passed away soon after she began her sentence.
“It was scary to have one bad experience after another,” Erica said.
But she wasn’t obsessed with her own circumstances. She also noticed the suffering of others. “When I got to prison, I met people who never had a chance — girls who came from nothing, who had mothers who prostituted them as children, people who had addictions, women who were there after men forced them into a situation, or who were there because of what they did to get away from a violent partner.”
It shook her.
Just as shocking were the conditions she found in prison. Not only was overcrowding an ongoing crisis, but the facilities were so moldy that it became the subject of a $500,000 lawsuit against the state. Erica also hadn’t been aware that prisons don’t provide incarcerated people with basic hygiene products like toothpaste, or women with enough pads or toilet paper. She was shocked to find maggots in the food she was supposed to eat.
“I didn’t expect the food to be great, but I still expected it to be food,” she said.
Erica began doing what she had learned to do through her family business: empathizing. She became a mother figure at Huron Valley Women’s Correctional Facility, someone people could go to with questions or for advice when they needed an honest answer.
Prison administration noticed her, too. They put her background and training to use by assigning her to work in the prison’s hospice program and prisoner observation, where she helped prevent suicide. She also helped with special activities, where she helped assign people to classes and programs. She herself would sign up for several educational programs, attaining three associate degrees in general studies, the arts and business from Jackson Community College while she was incarcerated.
She kept close to the family she had left, too. As the end of her sentence neared, she was especially concerned with her niece Mickayla, the daughter of her sister who had passed away. When that happened, a cousin stepped in to adopt Mickayla, but that relationship had disintegrated and Mickayla was now living with a foster family. Erica desperately wanted to adopt her when she came back home.
Adopting is a long and arduous journey at the best of times, but to adopt someone fresh out of prison can seem impossible. Luckily no one told Erica that. With her aunt in her corner, a flood of letters supporting Erica’s adoption bid flowed into the family court in Saginaw County. People were willing to give positive references on her behalf. Amazingly, Erica’s aunt stepped up to buy a home for Erica and Mickayla to live in. The court agreed that living with Erica would be better than staying with a foster family. Emily — Erica’s daughter — also came home to live with Erica when she came home from prison in 2000.
“The love is just there,” Erica says of her family. “I feel so good, and I want to do something positive with my life. I now know there are so many people who basically have the cards stacked against them. I want to prevent them from going to prison in the first place. And if they do, I want to make it simpler for them to come out, receive a fresh start, a job, and a home, and never go back.”
Erica was about to find out for herself just how difficult it can be for someone to come home from prison. She returned to Saginaw in January 2020 — just weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
She enrolled at Saginaw Valley State University to study business and also worked as a Lead Campus Organizer with Rise, a student-led organization committed to abolishing tuition and fees and eradicating student hunger and homelessness. She also found work with Michigan Liberation, a nonprofit working on criminal justice reform, to see how she could get involved. It was a major election year, so they asked her to help with the presidential campaign. She liked the work so much that she has helped during the past three election years, working on municipal and midterm elections as well.
In a sense, the work was eye opening — she wasn’t prepared to see how many people weren’t paying attention to what was happening in the state, nation and world. But in another way, it was familiar. Erica admits that her own views on crime and punishment have shifted because of her own experiences.
“I voted for truth in sentencing (in 1998),” she said. “Then I worked as an associate member of National Lifers of America trying to repeal it. I used to be conservative. There were times in my life when I have been pretty judgey — I own it. But then I got to prison and met people who had lived a completely different life than I had, and I had no frame of reference to understand that.”
Today she’s not about judging. She’s about finding solutions and helping people move forward with their lives.
“Recidivism is so high because if someone does not have access to adequate resources and they can’t make enough money to live, then they are more likely to make the same choices that got them to prison in the first place,” she said.
She’s seen the struggle up close. “I can’t get a job, and I’m so overqualified for everything I apply for, it’s laughable. The system is broken and I want to help fix it any way I can.”
Part of the problem — at least in her community — is a dearth of programming for people coming home from prison. She credits the Michigan Department of Corrections Offender Success Program as being helpful, but said it’s not funded and staffed well enough to provide services to everyone who needs it.
Eventually, she decided she would have to create the change she wanted to see. Her fellowship at Safe & Just Michigan will show her how organizations raise funds from both large and small donors and administer grants. That knowledge could come in handy whether she starts up her own nonprofit or finds an existing one to partner with should it expand into her community. Either way, she is eager to see more services for formerly incarcerated people enter her hometown.
“I don’t want to reinvent the wheel,” she said, “but if I could help another entity enlarge their scope to include Saginaw, that would be very exciting.”
~ Barbara Wieland
Senior Communications Specialist