This year marks 16 since I started reporting on the problems faced by ex-offenders — former prison inmates or, if you prefer, “returning citizens” — as they earn release and come home. The challenges are many, but top of the list is employment. People with criminal records, particularly those who committed an act of violence, always have had a tough time finding jobs. Employers have traditionally been unwilling to hire men and women with criminal records. Some employers have tried and had a bad experience; others just don’t want convicted felons among their other employees or dealing with their customers. While attorneys still warn business owners about the risks and liabilities — the potential problems stem from what’s known in the trade as “negligence in hiring” — some attitudes have changed. There has been more public advocacy on behalf of “returning citizens,” and even some laws have been enacted to make it easier for them to establish post-prison lives.
One man who took on the challenge and had a vision about this was the Rev. Chester France, a longtime prison chaplain in Maryland. He knew that inmates had sewing skills from their time working in prison industries, making uniforms, flags, hospital gowns. Could he put recently released inmates to work stitching something that could be sold? Was there a sustainable business in that? After four years of planning and raising funds, France’s vision — to have former inmates make ceremonial garments (gowns and robes for clergy and choirs, robes for the judiciary) — has come to fruition. You can read about Lifting Labels in my Sunday column in The Baltimore Sun.
Lifting Labels is considered a startup social enterprise. If you want to support it — but don’t immediately need a new gown, robe or stole — France and his board are still seeking financial support.