"Fighting for Their Future": Aaron Kinzel

Written by Forgive Everyone Contributor, Emma Suiter

It has always driven me mad when people respond to a bad situation by saying, automatically, “I would never do that.” The reality of life is that you have no idea what you would do in a given situation, or what you are capable of under terrible circumstances. This is not a new idea; it is why classics like Huckleberry Finn, The Scarlet Letter, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Book Thief, and so many others are so important to our society, and why the need to be told again and again. But we are so quick to distance ourselves from people who do bad things. Too quick. Because, in all reality, people who do bad things are just that—people.

Aaron Kinzel was born to a single mother in the projects in Ohio. He lived with her and various boyfriends, most of whom dealt in drugs and petty crime, and taught Aaron to help. In an interview with Lions of Liberty, Aaron says, “I gained a criminal sophistication at the age of 5.” (Aaron, felony Fridays) Some of these men were violent and abusive; in response, he adopted what he calls, a “hyper-aggressive” mindset. Aaron tried to stand up for himself and his mother and was shot at by his mother’s boyfriend at age 8 (Felony Friday). Aaron says that while not an excuse, “a lot of people were subjected to crazy stuff as kids. So they become that which they hate and that which they’re subjected to.” (qtd. in The University record) The cycle is perpetuated because of traumatic experiences. This was certainly true for him; he continued being dragged into various criminal activities until he was 18. (Vera)

At 18, he and his girlfriend were in a stolen car when they were pulled over by a state trooper. Aaron panicked and retaliated, refusing arrest and attempting to intimidate the officer. This led to a chase that eventually ended with him coming towards officers with his hands up, standing in front of his girlfriend so that none of the bullets would hit her if police opened fire. Later, she testified against him under threat of being charged herself as a co-conspirator by the DA. (Felony Fridays) Kinzel says that if Maine had a death penalty, he would have been facing it. He ended up receiving 19 years.

“a lot of people were subjected to crazy stuff as kids. So they become that which they hate and that which they’re subjected to.”

It is obvious as he is speaking that Aaron has extensive knowledge about law, including the specific dangers of drugs and drug politics, the true toxicity of violent masculinity, the flaws of the justice system, the corruption in government that exploit these, and the nuances of the law itself. He also has a quick sense of humor to accompany his expertise. He is the type of professor every student wants to have: real, honest, and, most importantly, invested. It makes them authentic, and it makes students feel like maybe it’s actually possible to graduate, go on to get a PhD, start a family, and get a good job. Aaron is tremendously open and honest about his own less-than-orthodox path, and it makes him inspirational.

Aaron says that he is thankful that he was locked up, because it interrupted a negative life path due to all the trauma he had been a part of. “I needed treatment—I didn’t need to just get locked in a cage.” (Felony Fridays) He explains that a life of criminality is not a conscious choice, but that “a lot of people are doing it because of the trauma.” Getting incarcerated gives individuals a chance to rethink their lifestyle, and even inspires changed—but because there is very little opportunity for work training and education, too often this becomes a cycle of crime and incarceration. (Felony Fridays)

He credits the main department of correction for its decent education system. The lifers (inmates in for life) with him were even more influential, who taught him the beauty and value of education, the hope for his own future, and that physical violence is only a last resort. (Felony Friday) For the first time, Aaron was in contact with parental figures who wanted to see him thrive. He began to be hungry for an education, watching VHS tapes and following homework based off of a textbook. He got his GED in prison at 19 (Vera). When he got out, he went to Community College and got his Associates Degree, and after having some difficulty being accepted into a four-year liberal college because of his criminal history, he got his Bachelor’s degree in less than a year (Felony Fridays). His grandparents helped him get an apartment, from which point he started pursuing a graduate degree. He looked for work but was unable to find any—there were hardly any jobs available after the market crashed in 2008 even for people without a criminal history.

Kinzel's University of Michigan Card adjacent to his Michigan Department of Corrections ID card

He was eventually admitted into Western Michigan University for a doctorate in Sociology, where he began to share his history and experiences. He was offered a position to teach by the same university by colleagues who thought he was a true asset to the staff, unique because of his practical knowledge and insider perspective. Eventually he was made a faculty member at the University of Michigan.

Aaron continues teaching, constantly learning and improving his craft, teaching both university students and incarcerated individuals alike. He has a passion for improving the justice system, making learning opportunities for those who did not always receive them, and ensuring that people who come out of prison are given the education, the jobs, and the rehabilitation necessary to launch them on a path toward success.

At the beginning of the interview, John Odermatt (the interviewer) says, “It’s a pretty unbelievable story, to be 100% honest.” (Felony Fridays) The thing is, it shouldn’t be. Prisons should be a place for reconciliation and rehabilitation, where inmates are given ample opportunity to learn a different, better way of making it in the world. They should be given education, hope, and a future—something some of us were fortunate enough to be born with.

Aaron Kinzel grew up in a life of poverty and crime, but he refused to stay there. He fought tooth and nail to get himself an education—even when people were trying to deny it to him—and then a career. But he needed help to get there, from supportive grandparents to understanding employers. Now he spends his time sharing his experiences and his knowledge with younger generations to show them peoples’ potential for reformation and the necessity of helping them achieve a brighter future. Aaron hopes to make it to Congress someday to help drive policy change to reform a broken system that keeps individuals in a toxic cycle. His past fuels him to make a change; we should all aspire to be as driven. #ForgiveEveryone