Dress for success Clothing drive helps inmates during difficult transition

By Jo Mathis

Legal News

As a criminal defense attorney, Steven Tramontin has seen firsthand how difficult it is for inmates trying to re-enter society.

"As more and more clients exemplified the same hopelessness and lack of self-worth which inevitably led to their decision to re-offend," he said, "I began to see just how critical that time period just after a person is released from custody can be to a person's future success."

And that's why he got involved with Washtenaw Prisoner ReEntry, which helps about 300 parolees every year with that transition out of prison and into the work force through intensive job-readiness training.

"It is a way to positively affect these individuals at a time when they have much better options than those offered by the criminal justice system," he said, referring to jail or prison.

Most of the inmates' obstacles are economic.

"It's no secret that having a criminal record is a significant barrier to employment, but it is not absolute," Tramontin said. "Many of my clients have expressed a general hopelessness in ever finding a job, to the extent that they don't even try."

In 2010, Washtenaw County Assistant Public Defender S. Joy Gaines started a clothing drive/clothes closet for men and women who've been to prison to wear to interviews and on the job.

Called Suits4Success, it was a project for a leadership program she'd been part of, and she contacted Washtenaw Prison ReEntry to be a partner. She found sponsors to help with the drive, and soon Suits4Success had raised $1,000 and 100 suits and many other clothes, shoes, and accessories.

Since then, the program has taken off, with Tramontin as chairperson, and many others eager to help.

"The idea of Suits4Success is that something simple like having the proper interview attire can generate the confidence to apply for that seemingly out of reach job, and convince an employer to take a chance," said Tramontin.

Gaines said the project is becoming part of the culture, and can continue on even if she wasn't involved, which was her goal from the start.

"That makes it about the coolest thing I've ever had the opportunity to be a part of," she said. "I am so very thrilled."

Washtenaw County Public Defender Lloyd Powell commends Gaines for enthusiastically developing the program.

"Viva Joy is our mantra!" he said.

Research has shown that securing and maintaining legitimate employment is one of the most effective factors in reducing recidivism, noted Kelly Flint, a member of the Suits4Success planning committee.

Before being contacted by the criminal defense bar in 2010, the Washtenaw Prisoner ReEntry had no way to meet the need for appropriate interview clothing, she said, noting that without some way to ensure that clients have interview clothing, formerly incarcerated men and women would continue to have difficulty obtaining employment.

In addition to Tramontin, Gaines, and Flint, the Suits4Success planning committee consists of Kim Easter, Lloyd E. Powell, Sheila Blakney, Delphia Simpson, and Elaine Spiliopoulos.

Published: Wed, Jun 13, 2012