Countless experiences shape the trajectory of a human life, but for Maryam Henderson-Uloho the convergence of two specific and devastating events ultimately changed her course: a 25-year prison sentence and the death of her son, Augustine.
Maryam was serving her sentence at St. Gabriel’s Louisiana Correctional Institution for Women when she received the news that her oldest son had died in a motorcycle accident. There were no social or mental support systems available Maryam. In addition to the absence of professional assistance, she could not even take refuge in the support of her prison community. A gesture as simple as a hug from another inmate could result in a minimum 90-day stay in solitary confinement, known as “The Hole.”
Recently, there has been mounting attention surrounding policies and practices for incarcerated women - and for good reason. Since 1980, there has been a 716 percent increase in female incarceration. In Louisiana, black women are incarcerated four times more than white women. The Sentencing Project, a leading voice in reforming the nation’s criminal justice system, attributes these increases to “more expansive law enforcement efforts, stiffer drug sentencing laws, and post-conviction barrier to reentry that uniquely affect women.” According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, more than half of America’s prison population has a child who is under the age of 18.
“I am continuing to live with it: the death of my son and re-entry into society,” Maryam shares. Knowing firsthand the unequal support former female inmates receive, Maryam has channeled her energy and love into supporting formerly incarcerated women through her upstart venture, SisterHearts Thrift Store. “SisterHearts” is an affectionate term identifying women who were formerly incarcerated, those who are still in prison, and others who have supported Maryam since her release.
SisterHearts Thrift Store is no small affair. The 15,000 square-foot facility is located in St. Bernard Parish, one of the areas hardest hit by Hurricane Katrina, and an integral part of the community. Beyond offering goods ranging from common household items to clothes to furniture, SisterHearts hosts cooking classes, writing classes, and even a Toastmaster club. She also has made transitional housing a focus of her efforts. Maryam knows from her experience in the criminal justice system that inmates are required to provide a residential address as a condition for release. For a variety of reasons, many women lose their homes while serving their sentences. To address this challenge, Maryam offers a free six-bed facility for those women who have no home to return to or safe place to stay upon reentering society.
While she has a clear focus on serving formerly incarcerated women, Maryam also works with former male inmates, who provide support for the store. Michael Coleman has been with SisterHearts since the beginning and has developed skills in customer service, merchandise repair, and management.
While Maryam provides support, both practical and emotional, for those that much society has left behind, she faces common struggles as a small business owner and bereaved parent. “I live with Augustine’s absence daily. Just like a mother’s love, this pain can never be erased. I honor his memory by loving others and working hard every day to strengthen my heart.”