When Tamir Bell’s good friend Lance was released from prison after nearly 30 years, Tamir was the first person he wanted to see. Lance wanted to buy his partner flowers, candy and a card. But, locked up at age 18 and now nearly 48, Lance had never used a credit card before, or been to Meijer or used a self-checkout machine. Being formerly incarcerated himself, Tamir could relate to Lance’s fears and the sense of disorientation when first navigating life “outside.” As the pair walked through the store, Tamir alternated between gently guiding his friend and hanging back so he wouldn’t feel embarrassed or uncomfortable. After they left the store, Lance put his hands on Tamir’s shoulders and told him, “Before I could even say it, you had me covered.”
Tamir brings the same mix of compassion and can-do practicality to his interactions across UM-Dearborn, where he is involved in multiple student groups, including Will+, the Association of Nontraditional Students and the Transformative Criminal Justice Organization, which he co-founded. Tamir is also an alum of Albion College’s Inside Out Prison Exchange, a class examining the criminal legal system that includes both university students and incarcerated people and is taught inside prisons. UM-Dearborn has also offered this course since 2007 and, during the pandemic, professors Paul Draus and Anna Müller moved the course online, and then to campus. They invited Tamir and other returning citizens to serve as teaching assistants. Tamir also completed a directed study in restorative justice with Prof. Draus. Now, he serves as a facilitator in Art & Agency, a series of campus-community workshops that grew out of the Inside Out program. He is known in the workshop for being quick to support others and unafraid to be vulnerable in order to encourage others to open up, whether that means sharing a heartfelt poem or imitating a T-Rex as part of an icebreaker.
Observed Prof. Draus: “Tamir had such a good presence and grasp of restorative principles that we asked him to help us mediate an interpersonal dispute that emerged between some students during the Inside Out class. Tamir graciously stepped into the role, did the preparation with the students, and used his calm presence to guide them through a difficult discussion. This episode, and many others that I could discuss, demonstrate Tamir's continuing dedication to building a stronger community.”
Drawing on his past to write his future
Tamir had a difficult childhood following the death of his mother when he was 12. An accomplished student-athlete, he turned to drug dealing in high school and ended up in prison for 13 years. While there, he earned credit toward his associate’s degree and volunteered to tutor and mentor others. After his release in 2020, he enrolled in UM-Dearborn, in part to set a positive example for his son, Jamir.
Eager to make a positive impact on the criminal legal system and those impacted by it, in 2021 he accepted a position as a development fellow with the nonprofit Safe & Just Michigan. That role recently helped him secure his dream job: peer reentry specialist with Nation Outside, an organization staffed entirely by justice-impacted people advocating for meaningful criminal justice system reform.
Numbers don’t lie
In a pair of Art & Agency workshops on metalworking, led by UM-Dearborn lecturer Aaron Kinzel, participants were invited to create a work that represented both trauma and healing. Tamir’s work featured a series of numbers. Standing in an open lot on the east side of Detroit on a cool mid-March evening, next to a small blast furnace and a bonfire, Tamir walked the group through his life story, set in cast aluminum: the date he was born, the date his mother died, his inmate number, the date of his release, the date his parole was up and the date Jamir was born. At the bottom of the plaque were two question marks and two upside down exclamation points. Those, he said, represent his future.