Criminal Justice
 

An ex-offender’s bold experiment: turning trashed lives into treasure

Maryam Uloho's success with Sister Hearts thrift store has her looking for an Orleans Parish location.

Jed Horne

Maryam Uloho’s success with Sister Hearts thrift store has her looking for an Orleans Parish location.

Freed former inmates — ex-offenders — come out of prison with a lot of handicaps: no job and often no job skills; sometimes no housing; illiteracy, problems with drug abuse. Maryam Uloho diagnoses another problem widespread among ex-offenders.

“In prison, you lose the capacity to think for yourself.”

What she means is that there’s an induced passivity that comes with the regimentation of prison life. For years, you’re told what to do and how to do it. You forget how to make choices and anticipate consequences. Your decision-making skills rust.

In Uloho’s view, prisons should reactivate thinking skills as a routine part of the pre-release programming made available to prisoners nearing the end of their sentences. For lack of anything like that, she builds it into the training she offers employees of her thrift store, Sister Hearts, a business staffed with ex-offenders. Uloho is one of them. She did close to 13 years for refusing to turn state’s evidence against a man who held up an armored truck.

As we talk, a Sister Hearts staffer in his first day at the store and only a few weeks free after nearly 30 years behind bars, seeks her guidance. Anxiety is etched into his face as he leans over and whispers to her. You can hear the tension in his voice. The baby carriage that has caught a customer’s eye has no price tag. How much should he charge?

Uloho completely upends the man’s expectations: “Charge what you think it’s worth,” she says. He leads the customer to the cash register for a round of discussion; money is exchanged. The customer walks away with the stroller.

Uloho doesn’t know — and doesn’t really care — what price her employee charged. A lot of her merchandise is bought at auction for hugely discounted prices; a lot is donated. There’s room for generosity.

What matters is that her employee, the freshly minted ex-offender, has experienced personal agency and the responsibility that comes with it — perhaps for the first time in years. He has made a decision, stirring brain cells that Uloho assumes have been inert for most of the decades he was in prison.

Uloho empowers others on her staff by giving them a section of the store to organize. It might be a 10-by-10 foot space framed by a couple of bookcases and a sofa. Arrange the merchandise so it looks good, so it sells, she tells them. Even this simple task can challenge the ex-offender who has forgotten how to think. At first he may not quite grasp that the little porcelain puppy dog can be placed on top of the coffee table, not simply lined up on a shelf of things for sale, Uloho says. And the table lamp, priced at $19, can illuminate the area as if it were the corner of a living room.

Decision-making rebuilds confidence and self-esteem, but, of course, freedom carries risks. Uloho knows better than to let down her guard. Prison life — like the criminal lifestyle — breeds lying and manipulation. Part of Uloho’s mission in providing work for ex-offenders is to teach them the value of dealing more honestly and directly with people. “I’m real lenient,” she says, “but there are rules and consequences.”

She figured out that a young man on her payroll was dealing drugs right out front of the store to supplement his admittedly modest stipend. There would be consequences, none of them forgiving. He could quit or accept a temporary suspension without pay.

“But how will I live?” he asked.

“That’s your problem,” she reminded him.

Stupid decisions have consequences. Drug dealing could imperil the whole business and everyone who depends on Sister Hearts for a living.

Another employee recently tried to leave the premises with a shopping bag obviously swollen with pilfered merchandise. “Can I get that outcha?” she asked, indicating in the dialect of the streets that she was going to have to take a look in the bag before she’d let the young man leave the premises. It was full of clothes stolen from the shop. She fired him on the spot.

“This is the real world. There are consequences,” she said. She told him to come around the following Monday for his last paycheck. When he showed up, she handed him the check and then she handed him something else: the bag of clothes he had tried to steal. It was her way of underscoring how trifling his theft had been — trifling and yet fateful. It had cost him his job and one of the few avenues available for getting his life back on track.

In a happier intervention, Uloho recently took on a young man with enough background as a sound engineer to dream of selling his services making CDs for paying customers. Uloho gave him permission to incubate his business within the Sister Hearts showroom, but on one condition: that he set up his work station right by the door, rather than hide himself away behind his recording gear off in a corner. It was a way to accelerate his acquisition of the social skills that would prove crucial to his success, no matter how competent he was as an engineer.

Uloho is fully aware that she is sometimes dealing with men and women capable of extreme violence. “People with criminal minds can be very dangerous,” she says quietly, after recounting incidents of sadistic brutality she saw in prison. “I’m not afraid. I’m trying to show them that their behavior is just not necessary.”

She was a bit dangerous herself in the context of her 12 years at the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women at St. Gabriel, constantly testing the rules, repeatedly being thrown in the hole, one of her shoulders dislocated by an angry guard. She fought successfully for her First Amendment right to worship as a Muslim, then fought again — successfully — to force the prison to extend the same religious freedom to practitioners of other faiths, ranging from Wicca to Jainism.

I asked how she had found it in herself to overcome her rage and put herself in enlightened service to other ex-offenders. She credits some of her turnaround to Kairos, an evangelical prison program that accepts all creeds and denominations, including practitioners of Islam. She was frankly amazed that the prison administration let her participate, but they did and the impact was powerful. She soon was making lists of step-by-step plans to assure that, once released, she’d make it, that her re-entry would be a success.

Uloho was on vacation from her native Dayton, Ohio, when she was picked up in Jefferson Parish in 2001 and sentenced to 25 years for “obstruction of justice” for refusing to finger the man police suspected in the armored truck holdup. She remembers the cops mocking her as a Tammy Wynette wannabe: “So you’re gonna ‘stand by your man?’ ”

“He’s not my man. I’m just not lying about him,” she replied. “I don’t know whether he robbed that truck. I didn’t see it.”

She says the DA decided to make an example of her by securing an extraordinarily heavy sentence — 25 years, later reduced — for not cooperating. Her companion got life.

Unlike many women in prison, Uloho was literate; indeed, back in her native Ohio, she had risen from the projects to become a successful real estate investor with a degree in property management. She had also led a full life, what with the seven children — six sons and a daughter — born to her during an early marriage to a Nigerian exchange student. She lived with him in Africa, ferried around town in the blue Rolls Royce that was the emblem of her father-in-law’s considerable wealth. That interlude ended with a political coup that made it advisable for her, as a foreign national, to go back to the States with their kids.

Her education and her instinct for business spared Uloho the kind of desperation she has seen among too many female ex-offenders. With no real support, they return to immediate responsibility for their children and, simply to put the next meal on the table, hit the streets to earn money the only way they know how, through prostitution and drug dealing.

With so few services or programs available to ex-offenders of either sex, re-entry is always harder for women, Uloho contends. She notes for example that while her mosque provides temporary shelter for men fresh back from prison, women are accommodated only if they marry into the congregation.

Uloho, now 59, has a wonderful way of describing the insight that led her to start Sister Hearts.

“In prison they treat you like trash,” she began. “I looked around and I saw organizations like Goodwill and Salvation Army, billion-dollar industries that turn other people’s trash to treasure. Why couldn’t I do that?”

She carries the metaphor a step further: “People coming together at Sister Hearts reveal the treasure that’s inside each of us.”

Fresh from St. Gabriel, Uloho spent a few months caring for residents at a group home for mentally challenged adults. She was given room and board — no salary — in exchange for her services, but was blocked by administrators when she proposed to make a few bucks on the side, selling sodas and chips as a way to begin her struggle for financial self-sufficiency. She had studied culinary arts at St. Gabriel and was able to parlay that into a paying job cooking at the Youth Study Center, the New Orleans juvenile detention facility. From there she began participating in a local flea market, sensed its potential and within another few months had rented a storefront and started Sister Hearts. That was less than two years ago.

“It’s working!” Uloho reports.

The thrift shop, now at 7617 W. Judge Perez Drive, in Arabi, is grossing five figures a month, she says, and on a recent weekday visit, the place was hopping with customers and also ex-offenders. In addition to her staff, there were two women, freshly sprung from St. Gabriel, who had dropped by to celebrate their freedom with a woman who had been a powerful inspiration to them behind bars.

The Arabi shop, about 4,000 square feet, is filled to overflowing, and so Uloho is casting about for ways to expand to a second location, ideally one within New Orleans and preferably on a major bus route.

Uloho is not just running a store. She’s inventing the kind of post-incarceration programming that’s all too scarce in Louisiana, programming that’s humane, effective and deeply knowledgeable about the mindset of people recently released from prison. I asked if she thought her approach was spreading throughout the service sector that works with ex-offenders. “It better be,” she said.

She was alluding to pending plans to downsize Louisiana’s prison population, proportionally the highest among the 50 states and one of the highest on earth.

The simple fact, already grasped in states such as Texas and California, is this: after decades in which “tough on crime” policies were blindly embraced and prison capacity endlessly expanded, mass incarceration is proving to be not only ruinously expensive, it doesn’t really work. Jails have turned out to be factories rather good at transforming youthful miscreants into hardened career criminals. Recidivism rates remain stubbornly high, imperiling the civilian population that criminals prey on in between their stints in prison.

Through her remarkable Sister Hearts thrift store, Uloho is creating the prototype for a cottage industry that turns ex-offenders back into productive citizens. It will be interesting to see if the Department of Corrections and the non-profits that back post-incarceration programs prove agile and creative enough to learn from her example.

Lens opinion editor Jed Horne is author of the book “Desire Street,” about a Louisiana Death Row case. 

Help us report this story     Report an error    
The Lens' donors and partners may be mentioned or have a stake in the stories we cover.