From Ex-Prisoner to Professor and Prison Reform Advocate

Aaron Kinzel faced obstacles after being released from a 10-year prison stint, and now teaches criminology and is an active prison-reform advocate.
Aaron Kinzel faced obstacles after being released from a 10-year prison stint, and now teaches criminology and is an active prison-reform advocate.

By Christopher Zoukis

It’s easy to think only of the crimes committed when words like “offender,” “incarceration” or “prisoner” come up. But we should remember that many offenders in our system of incarceration will be released each year, hoping to become functioning and productive members of society. With support and rehabilitation, these individuals can become more than just their past crimes. They might even become role models and pillars of their communities.

One such example is Aaron Kinzel. Growing up surrounded by crime, in his late teens — when he should have been graduating high school — he was imprisoned for 10 years after a serious confrontation with law enforcement while on probation. He fired at an officer and led law enforcement in a high-speed chase and overnight manhunt, ending in his arrest.

Flash forward to today, and Kinzel’s life is completely different. After earning three degrees, he is now a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, in the College of Arts, Sciences and Letters, focusing his work on criminal justice reform and education for offenders. By focusing on education, mentoring and deterrence, his aims are to eliminate criminal behavior. He also teaches classes for the Criminal Justice Studies program, where students appreciate his real life experience, and frank and meaningful discussions in class.

Kinzel launched an experiential tour of Cell Block 7 Prison Museum in Jackson, MI, for sociology students and faculty, which thoroughly engaged the participants and gave them an idea of what it’s like to be incarcerated. He is considered an expert on the criminal justice system and in advocating for reform, and has conducted training seminars for upper-level personnel for the Department of Justice, has completed contracts with the DOJ and Federal Bureau of Prisons, and routinely does speaking engagements.

Kinzel was recently named a UM Difference Maker. Each year 50 students are selected, who are at the forefront of their fields, who make an impact on campus and in their communities, and who embody academic and professional achievement. In addition to this, Kinzel has received numerous grants, scholarships and fellowships, and is a finalist for an Open Society Foundation Soros Justice Fellowship, awarded to those who are leaders in criminal justice reform in the United States. The Open Society Foundations aims to reduce the impact of the criminal justice system on individuals, families and communities, by ensuring a fair and accountable system of justice.

Kinzel is a perfect example of why prison reform is needed. Even while working to obtain his three university degrees, it took him more than six years to find a job after leaving prison — because of the box he had to check on job applications. Now many states have “banned the box” in an attempt to level the playing field for ex-offenders who are re-entering society and want to become productive members of their communities. It wasn’t until Kinzel was working on his Ph.D. that someone gave him a chance at employment, and he was hired to teach criminal justice courses.

It is a reality that most prisoners — more than 90 percent —will be released. So advocating for reform and rehabilitation makes sense. We do not want these formerly incarcerated to reoffend, so they should be given a fighting chance after they’ve served their time, making housing and employment easier to obtain. Programs like banning the box, or prisoner re-entry programs help with the transition. In Michigan, recidivism has been reduced by 18 percent since the adoption of such a program. Kinzel is proof of what supports and opportunities can mean to someone who has grown up in a life of crime. People can change while they’re on the inside, and thrive on the outside. All prisoners should be given the opportunity to do so.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.comPrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com.