Michael Powell lists the options for staying busy in prison as follows: recreation, education (if you qualify for it) and then, well, time. Lots of time.
Powell filled his time at Marion Correctional by working out and playing sports – anything to keep his body fit. But he didn’t get many opportunities to exercise his mind. That is, until he discovered the prison’s community center, operated by Healing Broken Circles.
For almost 15 years beginning in 2006, the center offered the men at Marion Correctional 30-plus programs, including yoga, meditation, poetry and dance, as well as programming focused on workplace-readiness, parenting, wellness and personal growth.
For Powell, who described himself as “mad quiet” when he arrived at Marion, the community center, and its focus on encouraging people to explore new things at their own pace, helped him become more engaged and fostered his development in prison.
“You can't go into the community center without being part of the community; we just won't let you,” he said. “Prison isn't the most welcoming, engaging place to be. But in that space, it is. And it's something that I grew very familiar with, and I learned a lot about myself, but also how to deal with other people. And those things carried me through my time. … I changed the way that I viewed time.”
Then the pandemic hit, and the center closed. Suddenly, Healing Broken Circles had to figure out how to serve a population that not only had limited resources, but was also at a higher risk of getting COVID.
By this time, Powell had found his place in the community center. He facilitated programs and also developed his own programming focused on songwriting and musical expression. He mentored younger men. He performed in the and took part in TEDxMarionCorrectional.
“This is also another reason for me to get up and continue doing my prison sentence,” Powell said of his involvement with the center. “I went from … interacting with guys day in and day out to sitting on a bunk and not being allowed to move – and not being able to breathe, because we all had COVID.”
Powell, who was released in May 2020, said he was fortunate to miss the worst of the pandemic’s effects on people who are incarcerated, but he points out that many are still dealing with those impacts, particularly because the community center is no longer at Marion Correctional. Kendra Hovey, executive director of Healing Broken Circles, said there was a warden changeover at the prison, and the new administration decided to not invite Healing Broken Circles back.
Since the pandemic, she and Powell (he was hired on to Healing Broken Circles after his release and now serves as the director of outreach and new initiatives), along with the rest of the organization, are focused on reshaping the nonprofit’s mission for this post-pandemic world.
Hovey hasn’t ruled out opening another center – either in a prison or jail, or elsewhere in the community. But for now, Healing Broken Circles is working with organizations in Central Ohio such as the Franklin County Jail, Franklin County Community Based Correctional Facility and Alvis, a nonprofit that provides a variety of services to underserved populations, including reentry support for people who are incarcerated. Healing Broken Circles is also focused on producing community events like its ongoing program, The BackWall, which started in 2021. The next event takes place at Beeler Gallery on Thursday, Feb. 23, and is billed as an evening of music, dance, stories and spoken word by artists impacted by mass incarceration.
While some of the artists who have performed at BackWall events were formerly incarcerated, not all of them were. Hovey said that’s intentional and “reflects the understanding that mass incarceration affects all of us.” Thursday’s event will feature performances from Draye Mitchell, Tripp Fontane, Zerious Business, Brianna Rhodes and Powell himself, who performs spoken word under the name Blakk Sun.
For Hovey, The BackWall aligns with Healing Broken Circle’s mission to provide opportunities for those touched by the justice system to heal, learn and thrive. It’s also a chance for those who were formerly incarcerated to demonstrate their skills and passions.
“The community will benefit from their knowledge and their incredible commitment and passion to [keeping] other people from coming close to following in their footsteps to prison,” Hovey said. “There's lessons from resiliency, being able to not only survive, but thrive and make a life in prison. That's an amazing skill that anyone can benefit from and learn from.”