McNair Scholar's Research Based on Personal Experience


Joe Masters threw one fateful punch that sent him to federal prison for felony assault more than 20 years ago. He's not reluctant to discuss it because, in hindsight, he says the impulsive act and its repercussions ultimately changed his life for the better. The unique challenges Masters confronted as a Native American upon his release from prison and transition back into society gave him a renewed sense of purpose and professional ambition. They also became the focus of his research as a McNair Scholar at NMU.

“Some crimes committed on reservations fall under federal jurisdiction,” said Masters, who is a member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians and working toward his bachelor’s degree in social work. “There are no federal prisons in the Upper Peninsula, so U.P. tribal members convicted of felonies often serve their time out of state, far away and disconnected from their families. They’re not eligible for Michigan’s Prisoner Reentry Initiative and its services such as transportation, counseling, substance abuse treatment or short-term lodging. And reintegration is difficult because of policies restricting employment and housing.”


Masters said many former inmates are eager to return to the support network within their tribal communities. But because some felony offenses make one ineligible to live in federally subsidized Housing and Urban Development (HUD) units—common on most reservations—Masters said those who cannot legally reside there “live underground,” bouncing between the homes of relatives and friends, who in turn risk eviction.


“Those returning to reservations often face barriers to housing, employment and education because of the tribes’ relationships with federal and state agencies that restrict tribal sovereignty,” he said. “But they still have better luck transitioning on the reservation than outside of it, where they perceive more difficulties related to racism, isolation and increased competition for jobs.”


Tim Hilton (Sociology and Social Work, pictured with Masters) offered research guidance on the project: “On the plus side, the stigma of having gone to prison doesn’t appear as intense on a reservation. I had seen research on people transitioning back into society, but not specifically from the Native American perspective. When Joe was debating what he wanted to study, I told him to consider his own life experiences and interests.”

Masters interviewed 15 former inmates representing all five U.P. tribes. He presented the results, “Return to the Rez: Native Americans’ Transitions from Prison to Rural Communities,” at the NMU Sonderegger Symposium earlier this month. He also gave a similar talk at the 2011 McNair Symposium at the University of California-Berkeley in August.

“If it wasn’t for McNair, there would be no research project and I wouldn’t dream of having the goal of going for an MSW or PhD,” said Masters, a single parent who has mentored at-risk youth and advocated against domestic violence. “Carl [Wozniak] and Megan [DelBello] do everything they can to prepare us for that next step. They take us on heavily structured tours of other campuses, help us apply to grad school and prepare us for the GRE exam.”

The McNair Scholars Program is funded by the U.S. Department of Education and designed to prepare undergraduate students for doctoral studies through research and other scholarly activities. McNair participants are either first-generation college students with financial need or members of a group that is traditionally underrepresented in graduate education and have demonstrated strong academic potential.



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Updated: September 30, 2011

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