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Prison Break

Aaron Kinzel ’10 Uses Education to Be on the Right Side of the Criminal Justice System

If Aaron Kinzel ’10 was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, it was probably stolen.

At age 5, he was taught to pick locks and steal. Continually surrounded by bad people and bad influences at home, the angry, pot-smoking 15-year-old shoved a teacher at a basketball game one night, and then tangled with police who tried to arrest him. That landed him in the juvenile detention center. From there, he moved on to drugs and guns.

The tipping point for Kinzel came at age 18, when his violent confrontation with police led to a five-felony conviction. He served nearly 10 years in federal prison, but spent some of that time learning. He learned about the legal system. He learned about the cultural stigmas of being a convicted felon. And he learned that he didn’t have to be angry any more.

Turning to education, one prison correspondence class sparked an amazing educational journey that continues to unfold. Now a Siena Heights University graduate on his way to a doctorate, Kinzel is teaching others about the criminal justice system—from his own unique perspective.

The Worst of the Worst

Kinzel, born in Toledo and raised in Monroe, Mich., said his childhood was surrounded by trouble.

At the age of 19, Aaron Kinzel was convicted of 8 felonies and entered federal prison in Maine to serve 19 years. He has turned his life around and now teaches criminal justice at U of M—Dearborn.
At the age of 19, Aaron Kinzel was convicted of 8 felonies and entered federal prison in Maine to serve 19 years. He has turned his life around and now teaches criminal justice at U of M—Dearborn.

“My mother was just with a lot of men who were either criminals, convicts, drug dealers, etc., etc.,” he said. “They were the worst of the worst. I never knew my real dad. As a little kid, my earliest memories were watching people do dope and commit crimes. I didn’t know that some of the things I did were wrong, but eventually later in adolescence, I still did it, because it was a familial thing.”

One of his mother’s boyfriends was a cat burglar, who taught Kinzel to “pop a lock” at age 5.

“I remember breaking into another apartment to steal toys from another kid because I learned that from this guy,” he said.

During high school, he got into an argument with a teacher during a basketball game, which eventually escalated to a shoving match.

“He called the cops, and the cops came and tried to arrest me,” Kinzel said of the incident. “I fought, and I went to the Monroe County Youth Center. It was my first entrance into the system.”

It wasn’t his last. At age 16 he was placed on probation, and was doing and selling drugs. He received his first drug charge at age 17.

From Bad to Worse

By the time Kinzel was 18, he was trying to get off drugs and now carrying a gun everywhere he went. Deciding to leave home, he and his girlfriend were traveling by car in Maine when a state trooper pulled his vehicle over.

“A state trooper came up to my left,” Kinzel said of the event that changed his life forever. “I pulled a gun out and fired out the window. He drops back, and another trooper behind me fired 15 rounds from a nine millimeter beretta into the car. … There were bullet holes that went through the driver’s seat, and to this day, I don’t know how the hell I’m alive.”

Kinzel fled the scene, and led police on a high-speed chase through northern Maine near the Canadian border. After a spike mat eventually slowed his vehicle, he and his girlfriend fled into the woods, where they spent more than a day avoiding a manhunt that had more than 100 law enforcement officers in hot pursuit.

A lot of institutions are discriminatory against people with records . . . I received a nice transfer scholarship at Siena Heights University. I’m glad I made that choice,
because I made some really great relationships.

Eventually surrendering to police, Kinzel was charged with eight felonies, including the attempted murder of a police officer.

“It was completely stupid, the dumbest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” he said. “I was a dumb kid. I was an arrogant kid. Reflecting back, I think I was like scaring that cop. I really don’t think I wanted to hurt him. Completely reckless. I could have gotten someone killed with those actions. … It was me being stupid and being a tough guy.”

Slave to the System

Waiving his right to a jury trial, he pleaded guilty to five felony counts and was sentenced to 19 years in prison. In October 1998, he was sent to the federal prison in Thomaston, Maine, just like the one where the movie “The Shawshank Redemption” was filmed. It was anything but glamorous.

“I heard all of these prison stories from all the people I was around (as a child),” Kinzel said. “I wasn’t scared. I don’t think it really hit me, initially. After I stayed there a couple of years, I realized how much it sucks. You are just deprived of your rights, your liberties. You are a piece of meat with a number stamped on your forehead.”

Kinzel said he spent most of his time moving heavy panels working in the pris-on industries program, which caused some physical problems that linger to this day. He realized that behind prison walls, no one cared about his well-being.

“When you get in the system, regardless of what you did, you become a slave to the system,” he said.

Instead of fighting the system, Kinzel made a decision to learn about it.

“I learned about law. I learned about public policy,” he said. “I learned about the importance of education and policy and change.”

When he decided to take a correspondence course in psychology through the University of Maine-Augusta, he realized “maybe this is something I can do.”

He spent nearly 10 years in prison before he was paroled in March 2007.

The Long Road Back

After being released from prison, Kinzel said he knew his best opportunity for a fresh start was returning to Michigan. Although his mother was not someone he could rely on, his grandparents were. They offered him a place to stay and helped him pursue his education.

“If I didn’t have them, I would have been back on the streets,” Kinzel said.

Aaron uses his experience to teach criminal justice classes at the University of Michigan-Dearborn.
Aaron uses his experience to teach criminal justice classes at the University of Michigan-Dearborn.

Enrolling at Monroe County Community College, he completed an associate degree, graduating with honors. He then applied to a couple of different colleges. One was Siena Heights.

“A lot of institutions are discriminatory against people with records,” Kinzel said. “I applied at another school and was given a scholarship, but then it was rescinded. Then I received a nice transfer scholarship at Siena Heights University. I’m glad I made that choice, because I made some really great relationships.”

He said former McNair Program Director Dr. Patricia Wallace and former English faculty member Sister Pat Schnapp (now both retired) really encouraged him to continue his education.

“(Sister Pat) was one of the first people I divulged about my history,” Kinzel said of Schnapp, who has a long history in prison ministry. “She encouraged me to be more open.”

After completing his bachelor’s degree from SHU’s criminal justice program, Kinzel continued on to earn a master’s degree. But he still had a problem: As an ex-con, no one would hire him.

Honesty Is the Best Policy

On an employment application, there is a box asking the applicant if he or she has ever been convicted of a felony. Checking that box was often his biggest obstacle to employment, which Kinzel painfully—and repeatedly—learned.

“I thought (education) was going to help me, but in the end, I couldn’t get work,” he said. “I understand the severity of what I did, but there has to be a point where we give people an opportunity.”

That opportunity finally came via Western Michigan University’s doctorate program. In 2013 he was asked to take over a sociology class for a guest lecturer, and taught part-time for three years.

However, he was more interested in teaching about criminal justice, specifically in the corrections area. He eventually met retired Washtenaw County Circuit Court Judge Donald Shelton, who was now the director of the criminal justice program at the University of Michigan-Dearborn.

“He asked, ‘Why don’t you come work for me?’” Kinzel said. “He didn’t care about my record. He thinks it’s actually an asset, because I can talk about corrections in a point-of-view that very few people have.”

For the past two years, Kinzel has taught two courses in the program, and is on a continuing renewal contract. It’s a start.

“I love my job,” he said. “I have great relationships with my students.”

“He knows first-hand experience on corrections, and that’s my interest,” said Dominique Giraud, a senior psychology major at UM-Dearborn and a student in Kinzel’s corrections class. “My first reaction was ‘Holy cow, my professor is an ex-con!’ But then I thought about it and said, ‘Eh, he seems like a cool dude.’ Who better to teach than someone who’s been through it?”

Junior criminal justice major James Hague agrees.

“He is an ex-con, but that works to his benefit,” said Hague, who also is in Kinzel’s corrections class. “He gives you that perspective that you don’t always get. You know he’s been through it. He’s just not sitting there telling you what’s going on. He’s giving you personal experiences.”

Kinzel said he is up front with his students, as well as anyone else who wants to ask him about his past. He said that has been a key to his success.

“Everything is out there in the public now,” he said. “I always joke that I was in the convict closet for like six years (after) coming home. And since that time, I’m just completely out about it. That’s what has gotten me employment.”

He often takes his students on field trips to prison and corrections facilities, and works with the University of Michigan’s Prison Creative Arts Project, which brings visual, written and theatrical art to inmates in southeast Michigan prisons (photo right).

“If you were to bump into him on the street, you wouldn’t even know (he was an ex-con) unless he told you,” Hague said of Kinzel. “He’s just down-to-earth.”

Thinking Outside of the (Check) Box

Kinzel has seen all sides of the criminal justice system. And he said there are parts of it that need to be addressed. One is giving people like him a chance to succeed once they are released from prison.

“Give people a chance to get back into the workforce and prove themselves,” Kinzel said. “The biggest thing is the cultural stigma behind the people who are convicted felons. … And when they go find employment, that little box comes up. It can still deter people from giving them an opportunity.”

Aaron takes a group of students to visit the Ohio State Reformatory where the movie “Shawshank Redemption” was filmed.
Aaron takes a group of students to visit the Ohio State Reformatory where the movie “Shawshank Redemption” was filmed.

He also said the focus—and resources—should be redirected to fighting violent crime rather than drug enforcement.

“We’re throwing money at drug enforcement, but we’re not throwing any money at finding these rapists and child molesters and armed robbers and violent criminals,” Kinzel said. “We need to shift the focus more to the people we are afraid of, not mad at.”

He said his story is the exception, not the rule, when it comes to the outcomes of ex-cons.

“I’m like an anomaly,” he said. “We need a program to reintegrate (ex-cons). I did it on my own through sheer luck, determination and just stubbornness. I reached out to others. I want to learn. I want to progress. That’s the secret sauce. All of my jobs have been through networking.”

He realizes some people will never want to give him that chance to succeed.

“Some are not too happy about me being here,” Kinzel said of his teaching position, which he hopes one day will become full-time. “I can understand that. When most people get to know me and they see my work ethic and my personality and my determination…I’m just going forward, going up, doing really well.”

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