“Have you been institutionalized?” Maryam Uloho skips the small talk when she speaks to previously incarcerated individuals. The answer to her question should be a resounding, “Yes,” but the person on the receiving end often has little knowledge regarding the prison system and its damaging emotional impact.
Louisiana is the incarceration capital of the world. With the highest per capita incarceration rate in the United States, one in 26 adults in Louisiana face imprisonment, Maryam Uloho being one of them. When Maryam uses the term “institutionalized,” she is referring to the dehumanization and demoralization endured during prison. In addition to the subhuman treatment many prisoners face, Maryam’s definition of institutionalized also includes prison trauma, a result of witnessing violence occur up close and firsthand.
Maryam arrived in Louisiana from Ohio as an established real-estate investor. “Before prison I had a degree in property management. My assets were worth $5.5 million but that won’t be able to touch where I’m going to be now,” said Maryam. But Maryam never left Louisiana. After refusing to provide information on a man being questioned by the police for a crime, she faced the consequences for withholding information and was arrested for obstruction of justice. Maryam served nearly 13 years in prison, and upon release, she found herself alone and broke. But Maryam lost more than her home and her money. “When they thought they took everything away from me, they didn’t do anything,” referring to the overwhelming success of her post-incarceration program, Sister Hearts Thrift Store. “I opened Sister Hearts through survival,” she said.
Today, Maryam epitomizes a woman of strength– a black woman, an entrepreneur, and a motherly figure. She wears bright colors, she moves and dances happily throughout her store as music plays, her smile’s warmth takes up a large and felt presence with her employees, and this smile never lacks the company of her plum-colored lip gloss. She is a leader for women in the Muslim community and others look to her to gain strength. But it wasn’t always this way. After prison, she lost her self-worth, her confidence, and emotional stability. These values become lost within the violent prison environment.
Maryam begins with the same staple question because she too is an institutionalized individual. “When I was in prison I got my teeth knocked out, I got fractured ribs, my shoulder was knocked out, and I was raped… A woman I was eating with was beaten so bad that I saw blood ooze out of every hole in that woman’s head. They dragged her out by her hair. I can see that like it was yesterday. Then they put her in 4-point restraint and halo-dolled her, a drug you give to horses to numb them like zombies. When someone is on that drug they are incoherent and you can rape them or beat them and that’s exactly what they did. The prison officers kept her in that state for days.” Maryam’s voice rose in pitch and emotion, her eyes brimmed slightly with a thin bubble of tears across her water line, and she did not fail to maintain eye contact.
“The things I witnessed in prison are the reason I fight so hard. I don’t have a choice. I have to do my part to bring recognition to what I know is happening. This is a public health crisis” Maryam said. The incarceration system goes beyond physical containment and torture. Maryam highlights the inherent trauma that comes with the emotional distress and the constant exposure to violence, this deep psychological turmoil is not only unnatural for a human to experience, but little programs work to address prison’s emotional impact.
During her sentence, Maryam noticed the same women returning to prison, only soon after their release– an endless cycle. She began interviewing these women to find out why they came back and what happened outside of prison; she didn’t want to make their mistakes. With an eventual accumulation of these interviews, Maryam attributed the high recidivism rates to the lack of reentry programs that addressed prison trauma and the process of decarceration, which transforms one’s mindset and breaks down negative habits that lead up to and build during incarceration.
As a previously incarcerated black woman in her 50s, Maryam struggled to find a job. She began to clean objects she found on the streets in the apartment she was squatting in. She would bring the items back onto the streets, selling them out of a suitcase. Maryam invested the first $40 she made into herself… also known as Sister Hearts. The name “Sister Hearts” serves as Maryam’s ode to the women stuck in the cycle of the Louisiana prison system. Since those $40, Sister Hearts Boutique has developed into a multi-step decarceration program featured in various documentaries and the next season of Queer Eye.
Prison creates a hostile, unstable, and violent environment. The behavior and character that acclimates to this environment mirrors that of an individual in survival mode, far removed from normative means of socializing. Violence becomes normalized and reactions to unexpected, violent outbursts become a behavioral norm. The means of socialization change in prison so that when prisoners reenter society the standards change. “When I got out [of prison] I was so desocialized I didn’t know how to talk to people. If I even began to talk about prison a little bit I would break down. When I went to a psychiatrist he wanted to keep me sedated but I didn’t want to be sedated” said Maryam.
“Prison doesn’t reform, it only helps you survive in the prison environment. When you’re released you’re conditioned for the prison environment rather than society. That’s why when people get out they can’t function properly because the way they think stems from the prison system… there are no programs to help reverse the trauma and bring you back to a place of wholeness, balance, and equality with society,” says Anthony Taylor.
Anthony, Maryam’s right-hand man and close friend, also works as a decarceration specialist, store manager, team leader, delivery man, store greeter, and salesman, but his true talent lies within his people skills. Stepping through the store’s back door with a light-hearted bounce in his step, Anthony gleaned as he guided a staff member through a stack of clothes. His upbeat attitude pairs perfectly with the paternal force of his voice when he guides his staff.
Like Maryam, it wasn’t always this way for Anthony. Anthony’s Sister Hearts story began in a cardboard box. Homeless and out $120 after an argument with an employer who refused to pay him, a woman volunteering with a local food bank brought him to Maryam at Sister Hearts. Maryam asked Anthony the same question she always does, “Do you think you’re institutionalized?” Anthony smiled as he spoke, but explained that in the moment, he was taken aback. Anthony met Maryam with defense and pride, but truthfully, he knew little about what being “institutionalized” entailed.
Anthony told Maryam he had been in and out of prison for the past 18 years. Maryam laughed and rephrased her question, “Have you been dehumanized, desensitized, demoralized, or desocialized?” That’s when it clicked for Anthony— he most definitely had been. Sister Hearts addresses this trauma and works with its participants through it. “Being dehumanized was a loss of my identity.” Anthony could no longer recognize the person who emerged from prison. “Coming to this program, I began seeing myself as having value. I achieved that through my relationship with the merchandise in the store.”
Maryam used the basic model of a thrift store as the fundamental element to her decarceration program– thrift stores open the world up to hidden treasures and the Sister Hearts decarceration program not only regards the program’s ex-offenders as hidden treasures but, by creating a shift in mindset, shows them the hidden treasures of life itself and requires a complete shift in mindset. Everything in the Sister Hearts store has been discarded. Some of these things are new with price tags on, and still were thrown away at a point in time. “If something like that could be discarded, then anything can be discarded. Even though these items were discarded, they all have value. I began to see there was value in me as I found value in the merchandise,” said Anthony.
Not only did the Sister Hearts decarceration program provide Anthony with confidence, but also with a credit card and a bank account. The decarceration program includes the store’s partnership with Gulf Coast Bank. Anthony went from owning no credit cards to the owner of the bank signing off on his account. For Sister Hearts affiliates, opening an account requires $500, and thereafter they receive a secure credit. Anthony now owns 6 credit cards. Most reentry programs fail to help prisoners mend their relationships with banks, often leaving them to struggle financially or without clear guidance as to how to rebuild their credit. Without a liaison between previously incarcerated individuals and banks, like Sister Hearts, the financial burdens become perpetuated and possibly solved with crime.
Anthony’s energy and smile ricocheted throughout the store, he embodied a vibrant and eloquent leader. As Anthony explained his story, he took breaks to guide the program’s newest participant, Byron. It was Byron’s first day on the job. The previous day, while Maryam and Anthony were driving around, they noticed Byron walking near a casino. They stopped to offer him a free phone, another part of the Sister Hearts Decarceration program. Maryam recognized a hesitation and a sense of apprehension in Byron’s demeanor. Based on his mannerisms and struggle to socialize, which are indicative of past trauma, Maryam could tell Byron had been incarcerated. After giving him the phone, Maryam once again asks Byron, “Are you institutionalized?” Byron nodded yes and agreed to come to the store the next day to begin his decarceration journey.
Byron didn’t smile much. He wore all black and a backward hat, from afar his presence was intimidating. But beyond his hard surface, Byron’s soft-spoken voice, piercing blue eyes, and patience as he learned about the store put the stereotypes many ex-offenders often face to rest. Anthony represents a Sister Hearts success story, Byron is just at the beginning of his. “I’m looking for a different perspective and some advice. There is no type of help, or groups, or anything. There is no help period. If a situation were to happen there is no hotline for anyone to call and ask for help,” said Byron. Like Anthony, Byron also identified with being institutionalized or feeling dehumanized and desensitized in prison. “In some way shape or form those things happened to me in prison. I want to be a part of decarceration here because there is no help out in St. Bernard. Nothing at all. But I would like to be a part of it if that’s here.”
Byron walked over to Maryam carrying a rack of neatly folded shirts. He wavered for a moment, taking a step forwards and backward before approaching her. Byron looked at her and motioned silently to his work. “I don’t know where you’re going to find a place to put that but I love it,” said Maryam. Byron lingered, looking around the store for an open spot. “You’ll figure it out,” Maryam said.
This seemingly small moment for Byron marks a large step in his process of socialization. “Part of the decarceration process is that I’m not going to tell him where to put it, I’m not going to tell him because he didn’t ask. Asking is part of his learning,” said Maryam. When Maryam greets a customer she says, “Hello my name is Maryam, is there anything I can do to assist you?” She explained, “The staff doesn’t understand that this is also a part of rehabilitation, understanding how to help someone.” Maryam’s wording, down to how she greets her customers or chooses when and how to assist her staff in the decarceration program, works to re-socialize the ex-offenders. This is a process that teaches them to consider how to help others and also ask for help, gestures that don’t exist between people in prison.
Maryam’s other primary socialization tactic for program participants involves making to-do lists. After her release from prison, Maryam decided to organize her life with to-do lists. “I started writing to-do lists and that’s how I healed, I know it sounds simple. Everyone in my program has a to-do list because when I write things it keeps me focused. Once I accomplish a list for a day I can see how far I’ve come and then I do another list for the next few days. I can see my growth and it keeps me focused.” Anthony also continues to use Maryam’s to-do list strategy. “ At Sister Hearts we set goals every day. I have a to-do list that keeps me focused. At the end of the day, I look at that list and see what I’ve done. When the next day comes I create a new list. With these lists you start to accomplish a lot more things. If your list has 5 things– get them done, if it has 21 things– get them done. You learn to do things and how to process getting things done so you become a problem solver.”
This is where Sister Hearts separates itself from other reentry programs. At no point in the reentry process into society do programs focus on emotional growth and everyday socialization tactics. Maryam explains, “Decarceration is the knowledge that you have a disease inside of you, called prison trauma. If you’re not made aware of the disease inside of you, it’ll eat away at you, your humanity, your compassion, your identity will eat away at you. And if this continues it’ll come to life in prison or the grave. Decarceration acknowledges this disease so we can heal.” Decarceration focuses on breaking down harmful habits that inmates naturally accumulate during their time in prison. But the decarceration process is not a simple one, and especially with Maryam. “Maryam doesn’t hold you by the hand when you come to the store. See how I just let Byron go?” Anthony motions to Byron, moving quietly around the store on his own, tasked to find his way in a new environment. Anthony continued, “Now he has to let the wheels turn in his mind to change the behavior from that of the systematic place from which he just came from.”
Maryam and Anthony encourage creative thinking processes as a core developmental phase of decarceration. The focus is on the more imaginative thinking skills as opposed to the mechanical thinking common in a prison environment. Anthony said, “A prison is a methodical place and at Sister Hearts you have to use your own thought process and rationalizations and analyze as you work. This opens up your mind and that’s what it’s like working with Maryam. Maryam is thought-provoking and turns people into thinkers. She asks questions to get your wheels to turn.” Anthony’s point circles back to Maryam’s primary question, “Are you institutionalized?” While she knows the respondent may not have a concrete answer, or even the knowledge to respond, it marks the first step in a more introspective form of thought.
In a state where everyone who endures the prison system should answer “yes” to the question, “Have you been institutionalized,” the Sister Hearts Decarceration program, a center that unlike anywhere else, addresses the emotional effect of prison and guides people looking to make a positive life change, and provides a light to reach that change.