Airport jewelry store giving ex-offenders a leg up

AP News
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Posted: Dec 23, 2016 6:02 PM
Airport jewelry store giving ex-offenders a leg up

NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — Shoppers perusing the jewelry at a pop-up store in Newark Liberty International Airport's Terminal B can talk to a sales clerk who also made the baubles, but they might be surprised to learn the employee is wearing a different kind of bracelet — the kind that goes around your ankle and tracks your every move.

The store is part of a program for women recently released from jail or currently in the criminal justice system. They get job skills, some income and, perhaps most important, self-confidence.

It's the product of a union between a reverend, a film producer and a former governor all committed to easing a transition that can be daunting at best.

"When you get out of prison, society doesn't let you out of prison, in a way," said Francine LeFrak, the film producer. "You have a hard time with every step of the way. People look at you as 'that person who was in prison.' But if you're managing a kiosk at Newark Airport and you're in contact with other people, you're feeling that dignity of, 'I'm worth it and now I can talk to anybody.' It's about skill-building."

LeFrak, daughter of real estate mogul Samuel LeFrak, formed Same Sky in 2008 as a way to help women in Rwanda by selling their handmade jewelry in the U.S. Her interest in helping America's burgeoning population of female ex-offenders dates back to the 1990s when she executive produced "Prison Stories: Women on the Inside" for HBO.

Three years ago, she partnered with former Gov. Jim McGreevey and the Jersey City-based New Jersey Re-entry Corp., the organization he chairs that provides links to education, job training, addiction treatment and other services. The third piece of the puzzle, Most Excellent Way Life Learning Center, offers housing and social services in northern New Jersey and is run by the Rev. Gloria Walton.

Barbara Murray was manning the Same Sky airport kiosk last week. She is a graduate of the Most Excellent Way and is studying to get a counselor's license. The 46-year-old had been jailed for shoplifting numerous times in Brooklyn, and found herself repeating the same destructive behavior.

"The times I got incarcerated back in Brooklyn I was never given any help," she said. "I just did my time, came out and went right back to the lifestyle. Today I'm not going back to the lifestyle."

The program "is affording her the opportunity to transform herself," Walton said.

For many people who have been incarcerated, the only jobs typically available when they get out are warehouse jobs, McGreevey said. Those can be physically demanding and difficult to juggle along with school and any parole or probationary requirements. In contrast, jewelry-making can be done at any time.

"What's wonderful about this work is that they can do work all day Saturday or at 8 at night," he said. "So they can earn money while going to college or attending employment training."

Victoria Keenan, also from Brooklyn and a current Most Excellent Way resident, wears an ankle bracelet while her child endangerment case is pending in court. She said making the jewelry is like meditating. The 23-year-old said she is going back to school in January in hopes of becoming a paralegal.