In 2016, Johnell Allen-Bey had an epiphany. While incarcerated serving out a multi-year prison sentence, a former cellmate and friend who did his time and was released had returned to the correctional facility to give a presentation to the inmates. At first, Allen-Bey hadn’t planned to attend but his friend, Ronald Simpson-Bey, specifically requested that he be there. “He asked for me, so I went – and it was a life-changing moment,” he recalls. “To see someone I knew who was making a difference in the world and changing things for the better made me really think of possibly being free again and what I could do.” Simpson-Bey was fighting for equality for formerly incarcerated persons with Nation Outside, and Allen-Bey felt it was a cause he could believe in.
After spending 29 long years in a correctional facility, Allen-Bey was released in 2018 and he wasted no time. He started his own company, Johnell’s Transportation, became co-owner of J&J Home Improvements, began working as a life coach with Re-Connect My Life and as a motivational speaker. He embedded himself in the Flint community serving on numerous boards and in neighborhood projects, and forged relationships with the Genesee County and Washtenaw Sheriff departments. Allen-Bey, with friend Percy Glover and in partnership with Sheriff Christopher Swanson, started the I.G.N.I.T.E. inmate education program. A busy and motivated man, Allen-Bey is constantly working toward a goal, so it became obvious that he would join the Nation Outside organization, co-founded by his friend Simpson-Bey, and serve as its Flint Regional Coordinator. “Nation Outside gives a voice to the voiceless,” explains Allen-Bey. “We organize, mobilize, support and advocate for changes to help formerly incarcerated people and their families. We want to enhance their capacity to shine.”
“Nation Outside gives a voice to the voiceless. We want to enhance their capacity to shine.”
Johnell Allen-Bey, Flint Regional Coordinator
“Nation Outside looks to do two things,” adds Nation Outside Director Ashley Goldon, “drive policy and practice innovation. In other words, we advocate for legislation changes that will eliminate barriers to success for the justice-impacted and support them.”
Nation Outside is unique in that it is an organization operated entirely by formerly incarcerated people. The Flint Chapter is the biggest in the state. The staff has over 350 years of lived experience with correctional institutions and represent over two million families impacted by the justice system state-wide. “We are run by returning citizens,” says Allen-Bey. “It’s something we truly understand.” This shared background leads to direct knowledge and experience with the multitude of barriers that exist for returning citizens. Current Nation Outside campaigns are focused on addressing each barrier in turn, now and in the future.
On October 13, 2020 the Clean Slate Package was passed in Michigan allowing for expungement of lesser felonies and misdemeanors from a person’s record after a determined time period. In 2021, Nation Outside executed the largest expungement fair in Michigan’s history. “In two days, nearly 4,000 people showed up,” states Goldon. “We only expected to help around 2,000.” Not every felony is available for expungement; major offenses such as a murder conviction cannot be expunged. Offenses eligible for expungement include marijuana offenses and lesser felonies. “Many expungements are for traffic violations,” Goldon explains. “There is no notification to returning citizens that this is possible. Part of our work is to get the word out.” In Flint, Allen-Bey has been vocal about the expungement process since day one and has held numerous expungement fairs. “We’re looking to do it monthly,” he says. The expungement process is the key to more than just clearing a record. It clears the way to obtaining better housing and employment where the stigma of having a misdemeanor or felony conviction can keep a returned individual poor and homeless. “The stigma associated with incarceration is maybe the biggest barrier,” says Goldon. “It affects us in every way including employment, education and housing. A person can’t focus on anything else if their basic needs aren’t being met.”
To address this barrier, Nation Outside voices support of numerous “ban the box” policies (the ‘box” referring to a housing or employment application that asks if a person has been convicted of a felony), including their push for fair chance housing and hiring. “In Flint, we worked with Hurley Medical Center and they now employ the formerly incarcerated,” says Allen-Bey. “We worked with Washtenaw and Genesee County Sheriff’s offices and they are the only two in the state that employ felons.” Golden adds, “We are looking into ways to make hiring felons more attractive to business owners. Incarceration has been classified as a social determinant of health, and so we are pushing to include Medicaid in the employment process.” Besides their work with housing and employment, Nation Outside provides help and advocates for returning citizens who would like to attend college through fairness in admission forms and procedures, provides mentoring and support, and helps with workforce training and certifications.
“We advocate for legislation changes that will eliminate barriers to success for the justice-impacted and support them.”
Ashley Goldon, Director
Another large piece of the puzzle is civic engagement and empowerment. “We push for our returning citizens to be civic-minded,”states Goldon. “We work to give them the tools to impact policy and be a part of their community. Voter disenfranchisement is a big issue in the incarcerated community; we want them to exercise their power, to show up to the city council meetings, to be knowledgeable and to vote.” Allen-Bey has embraced the message thoroughly and spreads it to other returning citizens in Flint. “Most people don’t know that released felons can vote in the State of Michigan,” he states. “When a person is released from prison, they are automatically registered to vote.” In fact, in Michigan, those on probation, on parole or in jail waiting to be sentenced are eligible to vote. “We went to the jail in Flint and helped them complete the process. In the past, many were denied their chance,” says Allen-Bey.
Ashley Goldon, Johnell Allen-Bey and the others at Nation Outside continue to tirelessly work to achieve fairness for the nation’s nearly 80 million justice-impacted people through presence and programming. In Genesee County, Allen-Bey continues to support the formerly incarcerated in every way he can. “First, I’d like to thank the Ruth Mott Foundation. They have supported everything we have done from day one,” says Allen-Bey. “Genesee County has over 369,000 formerly incarcerated people and we are all impacted by the barriers they face. Nation Outside is a movement to show the world that we can all move forward together and that we belong.”
Incarceration knows no race, age, sex or religion – it impacts us all. Nation Outside is looking for members and support. If you believe in the mission and would like to help returning people find their way to better lives and better communities, visit nationoutside.org and donate or get involved. Membership is open to everyone and anyone. For information about future events and policy information and/or to volunteer, reach out via email or social media on Facebook or Twitter.