Former Prisoner Opens Thrift Store with Nonprofit's Help
On an unseasonably rainy August afternoon, Carolyn Brown—who, at 47, has only a few traces of gray in her tightly braided hair—unpacks a pair of red rubber galoshes that were donated to Justice Works! Thrift and Gift shop on Ranier Avenue South, which she manages. "I thought I'd make them a fashion statement," she says, putting them on a shelf. In the late 1990s, Brown was released from a state prison in Gig Harbor, where she had served 14 and a half years for second-degree murder. Once she got out, she says, an officer simply gave her a check and directions to the nearest bank. "They took me by the hand because they could see I was crying," she says. "It was like being a kid all over again. I didn't know what to do. I was in culture shock."
Without any social network, Brown fell back into a criminal rut. She lived on the streets of downtown Seattle and was arrested "countless times" on drug and theft charges. But then, a few years ago, she began to transform her life with the help of a supportive judge, a trip to detox, mental-health counseling, and the Justice Works! program. Without the help, Brown says, "Most likely, I would be back into my addiction, committing crimes, and homeless."
The glass-front thrift store, which will hold a grand opening on Saturday, August 23, is the first step in the nonprofit's recently inaugurated "business send-off project," an eight-stage program designed to teach formerly incarcerated people how to manage their own businesses. "It's hands-on experience so that I can open up my own thrift store some day," Brown says.
It's not easy to manage the flood of donated inventory, which includes wooden toys carved by prisoners, giant ceramic salt and pepper shakers, little television sets, and clothes. "Sometime I just get overwhelmed because it is new to me," she says.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the program is not just that the nonprofit is helping people like Brown become entrepreneurs, but that their work is helping the nonprofit become financially independent. "We decided that the organization should also be self-sufficient, as opposed to relying on foundations and funders," says Justice Works! director Lea Zengage. The all-volunteer group, founded in 2001, will use some of the proceeds from the store's sales to fund two apartment units for released prisoners above the shop, its court-watch program, and other prisoner outreach work. Zengage says Justice Works! plans to start three more businesses run by former prisoners: a barbershop (they already have seven chairs), a painting business, and a carpet-cleaning company. When Brown completes the final stage of the project, she can start her own thrift store, which she wants to call Carolyn's Closet. Then another former prisoner will take her place and learn the ropes.
Prisoner reentry programs regularly face skepticism from the communities that surround them. In late July, for example, Sound Mental Health—a nonprofit service organization that recently received state funding to house former prisoners—canceled its lease on a house for released felons in West Seattle in response to neighborhood uproar.
Ray Akers, a board member of the Southeast Seattle Crime Prevention Council, says Rainier Valley gets more than its share of social services. "It's been like the floodgates have opened down here," he says. "These are organizations we embrace, but... is there no other neighborhood that needs a Union Gospel Mission or homeless facility?"
"A thrift shop would appeal to a lot of other communities," Akers adds. "There are other eclectic neighborhoods." On the other hand, rents are relatively affordable in South Seattle, which makes the area a magnet for social service programs.
Kenneth Stark, director of human services in Snohomish County and an expert on reentry programs, says the Justice Works! program "isn't about 'hug a thug.' It reduces recidivism and criminal-justice costs—not only future crimes, but also police, jail, and court costs," Stark says. According to a 2007 study by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy, community-based employment and job training saves society $4,359 per participant by reducing future crimes, criminal-justice costs, and impacts on would-be victims. When combined with drug-treatment programs, as in Brown's case, the savings increased by another $10,000.
Brown, of course, doesn't measure her success in financial terms, but rather her new relationships and self-reliance. "For the first time in my life, I feel like I belong," she says. "I am a part of this society today."