Outfitted for a Fresh Start
How Dress for Success helps ex-cons move on
Illustration by Chad Crowe
Dusty Summers is matter-of-fact about her time in prison. “I self-surrendered as a married woman with a home, and I landed at the Oklahoma Halfway House as a divorced woman who would be living with her parents,” she says.
The prospect of starting over is a daunting one, and Summers joins a rising number of ex-offenders who are attempting to re-assimilate. Oklahoma has earned more than its share of press as the leading incarcerator of women in the U.S., at 151 per 100,000 women in jail or prison, a figure that is more than twice the national average. (Other studies put the number at 127 per 100,000, which is still twice the national average.)
According to OKPolicy.org, 20 percent of Oklahoma inmates recidivated in 2014, and while the state has taken steps to reduce the number of felony convictions for drug possession – one of the two leading reasons women in the state go to prison – there are still massive gaps in services intended to help inmates readjust to the world after prison.
The Department of Corrections is not in the habit of providing inmates with clothing suitable for job interviews, but recidivism is driven by the inability to find viable employment. As Summers puts it, “People aren’t usually kind to a former federal prisoner.”
Summers learned about Dress for Success one week after she arrived at the halfway house. Alisa Trang Green founded Dress for Success nearly three years ago after researching service gaps in Oklahoma. Her husband works in film, and the couple’s schedule made a 9-to-5 job impossible for Green, so she started her own nonprofit.
“I’m geared toward helping women,” she explains. “I just believe that if you help a single mom, you’re helping more than one generation.”
Approximately 85 percent of Dress for Success’s clients are ex-offenders; others come from drug rehabilitation facilities or are fleeing domestic abuse. In fact, DFS also has helped outfit sex trafficking victims for court appearances, including a 14-year-old who had to testify against her parents. The stories can be varying levels of mundane or horrifying, but the needs are remarkably similar: clothing, support, mentoring and referrals.
Summers was “suited” by DFS – their term for providing interview clothing – and she got the job. In her case, it was a man she met at church, who hired her and helped her find housing. All stories aren’t as hopeful as Summers’, but the network of support DFS provides increases the clients’ chances for successful reassimilation.
“I could not have done it without the support of Alisa and the other women,” Summers says. “They texted me, called me, checked on me and, at all times, they reassured me, ‘You can do this.’” She gets emotional talking about it. “My mentor told me after suiting me that every woman needs a new jacket for her new life. I started from scratch, and they made it possible.”
“You can’t make it successfully if you don’t get involved with other people. You have to have community, which means you have to be a part of a community.”
- Dusty Summers
The long-term support is provided by the Professional Women’s Group, a network of volunteer mentors and current and former clients. The group meets monthly, and clients are allowed to choose the topic around which the meeting is structured. Green said the topics range from scholarship application assistance to financial literacy, and even fun subjects such as makeovers.
“The cornerstone of what we do is follow up,” Green says. “We dress them, help with mock interviews, help with resumes – but none of that matters without the follow-up.”
After a client is hired – DFS makes no money on job placements – the group provides a week’s worth of clothing to the new hire. More clothes are available at the monthly meetings.
Clothing is an immediate need that only ex-offenders truly understand. Even if all the clothes from their previous life are available, the dramatic changes that happen during incarceration can quite literally make a new body from the old: People come out of prison a fraction of their former size. In many cases, though, they simply have nothing left from their previous life, and depending on their “outside world” relationships, with bridges often burned and trusts broken, they may have no help in acquiring outfits. And remember, the cost of a fresh wardrobe easily runs into the hundreds of dollars, even at discount clothing stores.
“Clothing is expensive,” Green says, and adds, “Clothing should never be a make-or-break issue for a woman trying to get back on the right path.”
DFS works with referral agencies, including the Department of Corrections, NorthCare, Oklahoma Halfway House and The Center for Employment Opportunities. The latter offers comprehensive employment services to the formerly incarcerated, and DFS is instrumental in helping with job interviews, job placements, clothing and other services that get the ex-inmates hired.
“We work with both men and women,” says Pat Viklund, CEO’s area director. “They are referred through probation and parole. We send every woman who comes to us to Dress for Success. They have successfully partnered with us many times on our ultimate goals: interviews that lead to jobs.”
Summers talked at length about the obstacles she’s had to overcome, and at each step, it was another person who cared enough to help. She leads a small group at her church now; the principle is being extended to the larger community that way.
“You can’t make it successfully if you don’t get involved with other people,” Summers says. “You have to have community, which means you have to be a part of a community.”