Furniture Business Hopes to Prepare Former Prisoner for High-Skill Jobs
HOST INTRO: Nearly seven-hundred-thousand inmates are released from U.S. prisons and jails each year, but over half of them will be back behind bars within 12 months. One reason why is the difficulty of finding and keeping a job. Refoundry, a furniture company in Brooklyn, helps former inmates do just that. But its model is an unusual one — and it’s growing to six cities across the country this year. Oliver Arnoldi (are-NOLL-dee) reports.
In a workshop in Gowanus, Brooklyn, the men around me are in a hurry, trying to stuff a small van with lots and lots of wood.
Walter, can you call Jay, so we can get this stuff rolling? Gene, let’s go!
They are carpenters at Refoundry, a recently opened furniture business that turns old Brooklyn wood into chairs, tables and cabinets. The difference being that the business is staffed by formerly incarcerated men. And business is booming, so they’re packing up their workshop in Gowanus and moving a few blocks north to a warehouse in the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
We just moved in here. This place is like, I kid you not, probably about 30 times the size of where we just came from.
James Eleby joined Refoundry last year after 23 years in and out of prison for armed robbery. Now, he’s a fully-fledged carpenter.
These are old floorboards. It doesn’t look nice right now, they look dirty and beat up and corroded, but you’d be surprised how beautiful the wood is underneath. All I know is that when I sand this badboy down, it looks good.
The technical skills Eleby has gained at Refoundry are rare in re-entry programs, because almost all programs are funded in part by Government money. Getting this money depends on quick job placement, which means participants are placed in low- to no-skill jobs that a) don’t pay well and b) are boring. Jason Wingard is a Columbia Dean who specializes in adult education. He says most prisoners are simply not prepared for a progressive life outside prison.
You need an agency or a middleman organization to make sure that they continue to advance their skills so that they can move up the ladder towards more sophisticated jobs.
Refoundry is trying to be that middleman. The goal for Eleby and his colleagues is to use Refoundry as a base to start their own businesses, because bespoke carpentry is not just something they enjoy, but a lucrative market that is feeding off the hip young tastes of Brooklyn. Case in point – Sarah Gilmore.
Where are we today?
We’re at the Brooklyn Flea.
What have you just bought?
I bought a bench that looks like it’s made out of a support beam. It’s worn but it’s beautiful, the wood has a lot of nice texture in it, and I like it a lot.
ARNOLDI 6: Back at Brooklyn Navy Yard, Refoundry Director Tommy Safian argues that this kind of transaction is about more than just making money.
They see people who they usually saw as looking down at them as the dregs of society, taking out their wallets, paying their hard-earned money, and then to bring those pieces into the most intimate places into their lives, their homes.
ARNOLDI 7: It’s a process that makes the carpenters feel both seen and needed by their community. Gene Manigo, who spent three decades behind bars for murder, worked in prison doing menial labor…
…for 45 cents an hour for 25 years of my 30 year sentence.
ARNOLDI 8: But now that he’s got the skills, he says he can expect much more from life.
Why can’t I work for myself? For more? Make three, four, five thousand dollars a month, and do something with it?
ARNOLDI 9: While Refoundry is looking to open franchises in six cities across the US, Manigo is already making plans to open a furniture business of his own.
ARNOLDI 10: Oliver Arnoldi, Columbia Radio News.