ANN ARBOR—The uncertainties in the ability to enter and offer creative arts workshops inside prisons during the COVID-19 crisis challenged a group of University of Michigan students who wanted to keep supporting incarcerated artists, their families and others impacted by the criminal system.

Together, they created a platform where people directly affected by incarceration can either send or receive support. The Mutual Aid Project is a tool to make it easier for them to support each other during this pandemic. 

"I was looking for a way to continue to give back," said Biology student Aditi Mahajan, a Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP) member since 2018. "It all stemmed from the fact that I was sad about not being able to host workshops or interact with other PCAPers and do all the amazing things we do in the club and I got to thinking that there had to be another way to help out during this pandemic."

So far, the project raised $ 16,200 of its $ 22,000 goal and provided financial aid up to$ 250,00 for 71 people. 

"I think that as students, the responsibility of coming up with solutions that engage the community falls on our shoulders," she said. "We have the time and the resources and the connections to mobilize large groups of people to help out and I think it becomes our duty to help in any way possible." 

Originally from Flint, Michigan, Joseph Johnson was recently released from incarceration after 38 years. He said his transition has been better than he thought, but the pandemic has been slowing things down

"I've found since being home is that people are more kinder and willing to give you an opportunity as long as you're willing to help yourself," Johnson said. "PCAP offered me assistance without knowing no more than I was a returning citizen in need of assistance. I think more people can benefit from organizations like PCAP and others that are committed to your success returning to the community. This aid has been a great help and a motivation to move forward so that you might be able to assist someone else."

PCAP's interim director Nora Krinitsky said the Mutual Aid Project is a vitally important student initiative, especially considering many members of PCAP's community have lost their jobs and are ineligible for federal assistance.

"Formerly incarcerated people and justice-impacted people are among the most vulnerable to economic hardship, health crisis, and mental and emotional strain," she said. "Many members lack health insurance or access to regular medical care. Others cannot travel to see incarcerated loved ones."

After spending eight years in prison and facing many challenges trying to find a job, Javonte Mcmillan decided to take a trade class to become a truck driver. Tuition and other expenses left him in some debt that he was having trouble paying back. 

"Once COVID hit I had to take my son out of daycare in the midst of my hours at work being cut by 24 hours a week. Because of lack of family support and ineligibility for unemployment or government aid, I had to stay home with my son more" he said. "The $250 came at the perfect time because I was in need of some help to stay afloat during a tumultuous time at work and with my children." 

https://www.gofundme.com/f/mutual-aid-for-the-formerly-incarcerated