Detroit program helps female ex-felons
DETROIT (AP) — In a small room full of decorative handbags and clutches, Tonya Carswell is seated at a table as she meticulously constructs a handbag. All the while, she talks about life after her release from prison.
Carswell was riding in a car in 1974 when the woman driving pulled up next to a man named Karl Bestmann. Carswell shot and killed Bestmann and stole his wallet. Carswell was just 22 years old. She had just voted for Coleman A. Young, Detroit’s first black mayor. And suddenly, she was headed to the Detroit House of Corrections.
Carswell was charged with second-degree murder and said she was criticized by Young in the press for having committed the first murder of the year.
That was 44 years ago.
Now 66, Carswell is committed to putting that part of her life behind her. And part of her new life is all about purses.
“It’s challenging,” Carswell told the Detroit Free Press . “It’s tedious work. It’s something that you enjoy doing because you want to get it right, you know. I didn’t have to do that kind of work in prison.”
Carswell was referring to the work she does with Bags to Butterflies, a transitional employment program in Detroit where formerly incarcerated women design handbags for sale and are offered mentorship. The program aims to help women re-acclimate to their communities after being in prison. Carswell, who has been in the program for almost a month, was released in April from the Women’s Huron Correctional Facility, Michigan’s only prison for women.
With the help of Bags to Butterflies, Carswell is going through the process of getting a driver’s license. She also hopes to find a home for her 90-year-old aunt, who currently lives in a senior living facility. However, Carswell said that because she hasn’t used technology (like a cellphone), it’s often difficult to find her way around.
“It’s challenging, I’ll tell you,” Carswell said of her life after release. “I’ve had some difficult times, and I’ve been lost about five or six times. But I’m not going to be defeated. I’m gonna make it. I know I am.”
This isn’t the first time that Carswell has attempted to restart her life. In 1976, she escaped prison for 11 months and was pregnant when she was caught and sent back. She gave birth to a son while in prison.
Carswell lives in a halfway house in Detroit and spends time with her son, who was taken in by her aunt while Carswell was in prison.
“I have good friends that help me, and a good boss,” Carswell said, referring to Michelle Smart, founder of Bags of Butterflies, who sits across the work table. Smart shed tears as Carswell talks about how the program has helped her.
Smart was working in corporate communications at Ford Motor Co. in 2015 — she retired in January — and creating woodwork pieces on the side.
While creating designs for an art show, Smart had no idea that her passion would one day impact the lives of formerly incarcerated women.
“My best friend’s daughter made a split-second decision, and she is now incarcerated,” Smart said. “That’s part of how the organization was started. The other piece was the handbags that I designed for an art show. ... When I found out about my best friend’s daughter, I mirrored the two ideas and came up with Bags to Butterflies to empower formerly incarcerated women with jobs.”
Smart said she was devastated by the news about her friend’s daughter because it was a mistake that cost the woman her very freedom.
“We all make mistakes. If I was punished for mistakes that I made when I was younger, then I wouldn’t be here.” Smart said.
Smart got started with a focus group of 10 women meeting weekly at Oasis of Hope Church in Detroit. The women assembled handbags that were then donated to women diagnosed with breast cancer.
From there, Smart has seen her idea blossom. Now, with an added employment initiative, three women are employed by the program. The program also features monthly meetings aimed at helping members identify their needs and discover new interests.
The women are referred to the nine-month program through 80 Strong Community Outreach in Detroit. They are paid biweekly at a rate of $10 an hour, which is upped to $12 an hour after 90 days. Smart said that the women are paid directly through sales of the handbags, which are constructed from repurposed wood and sold online or at various community events. Purses typically cost between $75 to $200.
“During the nine months, we’re talking with the ladies and finding out what they would like to do,” Smart said. “If they’d like to start their own business, if they’d like to pursue other employment initiatives, if they’d like to stay on, they’re welcome to do so.We try to find out what their dreams and desires are.”
Brenda Wyatt, another member of Bags to Butterflies, has a dream of publishing her own book of poetry. While in prison for three years, the Oak Park resident took creative writing classes offered by Michigan State University.
“My instructor told me that I’m a phenomenal writer and that I shouldn’t quit writing,” Wyatt said.
Since her release in 2016, Wyatt returned to — and then retired from — a 40-year career as a financial administrator. She’s an active member of her church, Christ Disciples Ministry, works with Ronald McDonald House and assists children with disabilities.
Wyatt, 65, has been involved with Bags to Butterflies for more than a year. Because she has retirement income and is not in need of employment, she takes on a different role, something of a mentor to the other women. Wyatt said that she’s currently helping Carswell become more acquainted with technology.
“I love Tonya’s spirit,” Wyatt said. “She’s just such a humble lady, and I just feel bad because I think about my three years (in prison) and her having 44 years, and she’s coming out into a whole new world. I told her that one day I would help her with using a phone. She’ll call me, but she gets confused and ends up getting lost sometimes.”
Wyatt views her work with Bags to Butterflies as a connection to the women she was imprisoned with for three years.
“I promised the women (that I was in prison with) that I would advocate for them when I got home because I did a lot of writing to organizations that dealt with things that weren’t right in the prisons,” Wyatt said.
Wyatt said she wants to do more to help formerly incarcerated women coming home, such as training them to write resumes and helping them dress for and conduct job interviews.
Bags to Butterflies is the only program in Detroit aimed at reducing recidivism among former female inmates, according to Smart, who said that information surprised her initially.
“I really didn’t know about it until we did our focus group and in talking with the ladies, they were like there’s nothing available for us and it’s like they’ve forgotten about us,” Smart said, and Carswell and Wyatt agreed. “The mission is always to do something for the ladies when they come home.”
The organization’s new collection of handbags, called Hello Butterfly, was introduced at ArtLoft in Midtown on July 13.
“We as women can identify with our handbags and the stuff that we put in there, so the program acts as a message for all women to let (our baggage) go,” Smart said. “If we’re going to carry our baggage, then we’re going to downsize it and carry it gracefully.”
Information from: Detroit Free Press, http://www.freep.com