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Stitching together new lives after prison | COMMENTARY

Lillie Brown works on a clerical stole at her sewing machine in the Lifting Labels shop in southwest Baltimore.
Lillie Brown works on a clerical stole at her sewing machine in the Lifting Labels shop in southwest Baltimore. (Baltimore Sun staff)

“So hope for a great sea-change on the far side of revenge,” goes a verse by Irish poet Seamus Heaney. “Believe that a further shore is reachable from here. Believe in miracles and cures and healing wells.”

With empathy having been declared the hallmark of the Joe Biden time in America — the new president asking us to heal, fix what’s broken and look to the future — I find it difficult, in the moment, to ask too many questions about the past.

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Here, in a well-lighted but windowless room on the fifth floor of an old warehouse in southwest Baltimore, I find the new enterprise called Lifting Labels, a small sewing shop where robes and vestments are being stitched together for judges, ministers and members of the choir. I meet Lillie Brown, Jody Boyd, Anthony Holmes, Earl Gaskins and Jerita Knight, all middle aged or a little older, all with criminal records, all with years and decades spent in Maryland prisons, all trying to stitch together a new life.

I could ask them, and did ask them, why they went behind the walls, and I got my answers, briefly and quietly stated at their work stations. But I didn’t push for details this time. I kept hearing an inner voice, and it reminded me that people with dark or damaged pasts, who do their time and pay their dues, deserve to be judged by who they are today, not who they were 20 or 30 years ago. They deserve second chances.

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It’s what we’d want for ourselves.

Of course, I don’t put a criminal offense on the same level as a personal failing. I don’t compare an act of impulsive violence to a bitter argument with a parent or sibling. Inflicting pain on others has no business in the same breath as the pain inflicted by mental illness, drug addiction or deep, exhausting depression. Let’s not equate the unfortunate things that happen in life — divorce, the loss of a job, the illness or sudden death of someone we love — with the terrible things people do to others and that carry the penalty of prison.

But the commonality is the second chance, the precious opportunity to rebuild a life after trauma, self-inflicted or not. Not everyone is earnest about making a new start. But, saint or sinner, most of us have at some point been desperate for a second chance and embraced it like a life ring.

So Lillie Brown, after 27 years in prison, works at a sewing machine now, stitching together a colorful gold-and-black stole for a minister to wear during a Sunday service. She is 61 years old.

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Anthony Holmes is here, too. He worked in the sewing shop at the old Maryland Penitentiary back in the 1980s, when he first went to prison. He is 60 years old now. He’s been out for five months and now makes $15 an hour at Lifting Labels, founded by a longtime prison chaplain named Chester France in the former wholesaler’s warehouse at 1100 Wicomico Street.

It was France’s idea to create sustainable jobs for ex-offenders — “returning citizens” is the term their advocates use now — because finding steady work is probably the greatest challenge the formerly incarcerated face after prison. Despite recent wokeness about the effects of incarceration on people and families, a lot of employers still won’t hire adults with criminal records, particularly if their offenses were violent. That the violence occurred 25 or 30 years ago doesn’t matter. Our society still insists that penalties continue well after we’ve exacted revenge and inmates have served their time.

France, who devoted 17 years to a prison chaplaincy, wanted to do something for ex-offenders. So, about four years ago, he came up with the Lifting Labels concept, recognizing a potential market for ceremonial garments — robes and jackets for preachers, gowns for choirs, gowns for graduates and regalia for professors. Having a social mission would make the enterprise all the more attractive to his target customers.

France found support, both funding and mentoring, from Innovation Works and Ignite Capital, Open Works and other donors. By last summer, he had notched $200,000 in investor commitments and, though still raising money, he managed to buy new sewing machines and hire five workers and a supervisor, Sandy Spence, to get the business rolling.

The staff’s first robe went Thursday to a Maryland Court of Special Appeals judge, and they’re working on selling a second one to a judge of the same court.

The other day, the Rev. Kevin Slayton, pastor of Lanham United Methodist Church in Prince George’s County and former pastor of the New Waverly United Methodist Church in Baltimore, came by for a fitting, and he brought material with him. “Black velvet,” he said. “I saw a robe in Philadelphia that I really wanted to get.” He opted to have Lifting Labels make it for him.

All of the employees came to the job with sewing experience from their time in prison, and that’s a relatively rare thing — a skill developed during incarceration put to productive use on the outside.

Good for Chester France and his supporters, developing a social enterprise like this, offering a second chance, a place for healing on the far side of revenge, on that further shore.

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