Mass incarceration functions as America’s largest system of oppression and modern-day form of slavery. It thrives and fuels America’s economy by stripping citizens not only of their physical freedom, but also their social membership and emotional well-being. Louisiana is no exception. 50,000 of Louisiana’s residents are incarcerated across various prison facilities. Louisiana alone locks up a higher percentage of its people than many wealthy democracies do.
The implications of incarceration far succeed the traumas and confinements of prison itself, there are social factors that alter lives, regardless of this person’s character, work ethic, or willingness to change. Upon release, previously incarcerated citizens face lower wages, fewer job opportunities, lower economic status, and institutional discrimination and stereotyping. The role of proper rehabilitation and acceptance into society must be enforced as a significant step in equalizing the playing field. Sister Hearts Thrift Store of St. Bernard’s Parish, New Orleans is pushing boundaries to do just that.
Sister Hearts is not simply a thrift store, although their selection of clothes is colorful, dynamic, and affordable, it is a home. When individuals are released from prison after an extended period of dehumanization, Sister Hearts welcomes and employs them, provides a positive community, meals, developmental training, and medical resources. Sister Hearts brings decarceration after incarceration, and demonstrates the positive impacts that rehabilitation contributes to society.
Founder and CEO, Maryam Uloho, serves the community based on her own experience with incarceration. She explains, “When I got out of prison after 13 years, I was emotionally damaged. Three years later I am the CEO of the largest thrift store in St. Bernard’s Parish.” She describes the beauty in operating a thrift store, how it parallels her work. As she sifts through society’s “trash,” she finds the beauty in the clothes and objects that others deemed worthless. Sister Hearts finds the treasure and value within their workers.
In my experience shopping at Sister Hearts, I was taught the value of the customer/salesperson relationship. When I approached the counter with the sweatshirt I intended to purchase, I asked Maryam Uloho what the cost was. To my surprise, she looked at me and responded, “What do you think the cost is?” Taken aback by this question, I fumbled with the sweatshirt, unsure of what to say. I was wary of aiming too high or too low, but I took a guess and valued the sweatshirt at $15.00. Maryam Uloho explained that because I placed her apparel at a high, respectable value, it demonstrated my value in her business and what it provided for me. She also explained that because I placed value in the piece of clothing and showed her respect as a customer, she held mutual respect for me. This relationship then enabled her to lower the original price that I offered, because she appreciated how I valued and treated her. I ultimately paid $11.00 for this sweatshirt but more importantly, learned the valuable lesson that at Sister Hearts, over the physical objects, comes the value of human interaction.
Those with incarceration history are not to be lost or belittled members of society. They have purpose, stories, knowledge, and light to share. I encourage everyone to visit, shop, and meet the members of Sister Hearts. You are doing more than adding to your closet, you are sustaining a business that advocates for and fosters a community for members of society that otherwise would not have one.
Cover photo: Instagram @Sisterhearts_thriftstore