Writer, teacher, actor, and Restorative Justice advocate
At the age of 17, Cozine Welch was sentenced to serve 22-40 years with the Michigan Department of Corrections. While incarcerated he became the most published writer in the history of The Michigan Review of Prisoner Creative Writing. Cozine, released last year, currently co-teaches the Atonement Project and Theater And Incarceration courses at the University of Michigan, programs that focus on restorative justice, reconciliation and atonement, and the role that theater and the arts can play in rehabilitation, Cozine also serves as the new Managing Editor of the Michigan Review of Prisoner Creative Writing.
Why is it important to work with people within, and returning, from the carceral system? It’s one of the few ways presently to serve an underserved portion of our society, and also allow our society as a whole to better serve itself. The carceral state, as it’s called, is not just incarceration. It’s parole, it’s probation, it’s policies and laws, and it’s the school-to-prison pipeline. Certain segments of the population are conditioned as soon as they get into the sphere of education to serve out a particular set of roles. As far as incarceration is concerned, people who return have to be able to see themselves as more than just a felon. They have to be able to see themselves as a citizen who can contribute, who has a right to contribute .. so they don’t relegate themselves to something that is less than what they have to contribute (to the community).
How do you help people become part of the community again when returning from the prison system? We bring them to the university campus, we bring them to class, we take them to symposiums and talks and theater shows. We expose them to culture that historically they have been barred from, whether in words or policy or indirectly, and show them people like themselves in that space. We show them how the experiences they have had, the intelligence that they’ve garnered, is applicable to what they can do right now.
What do you see as some of the biggest challenges that people face when returning to the community from the carceral system? One of the problems that I find is the relationship we have with time. All the things that someone learns in their late teens and in their twenties, I didn’t have the ability to learn. Intelligence in some sense is based on preservation of yourself, and I was in a place where those weren’t the lessons I needed to survive. So while I’m doing all these things that I’m speaking to you about, I’m also trying to figure out how to develop my interpersonal relationships, how to develop my emotional intelligence… You have to look at what your relationship to time is, and how it can stop being an adversary and start being an assistant.
You’re also an artist and a poet. How do you maintain a balance of work, life, and art? It really comes down to organizing and structuring the days and the weeks in the midst of a type of chaos. No matter how you structure yourself, we’re so interdependent in this web of everyone else’s actions, motions, plans, and schedules, that you have to find a way to fit yourself in and there’s only so much order you can get out of that. So what helps to keep me going is having some sense of priority of time and attention. That allows me to juggle the six or seven things I find myself having to juggle.