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‘Ex-offenders Matter’

Jun 11, 2019 | 831 videos
Video by Even/Odd Films for Square

After Maryam Henderson-Uloho was convicted of obstruction of justice, she was sentenced to 25 years in a Louisiana prison. Ultimately, she served 13 years—spending more than half of that time in solitary confinement. When she was released, she felt dehumanized.

“You see, in prison, you’re broken—mentally, emotionally, and physically,” Henderson-Uloho says in the short documentary Sister Hearts. “I didn’t know what to do. I was alone. I was scared. I had no one.” An ex-felon, Henderson-Uloho was unable to open a bank account or a credit card. She couldn’t rent an apartment. Nobody would employ her. “I had to go inside myself and find something good about me,” she says. “I felt like trash … I needed help.”

On a street corner, Henderson-Uloho began selling discarded clothing items out of a suitcase. The first day, she made $40. “I just kept doing that,” she says in the film. “Three years later, I have a 15,000-square-foot thrift store and transition-housing facility for other female ex-offenders.”

Mohammad Gorjestani’s film, funded by Square, is the story of how Henderson-Uloho turned her life around and used her success as a springboard to help others. Her New Orleans thrift store, Sister Hearts, is owned and operated by formerly incarcerated women, who have the opportunity to live on the premises while they work to regain economic independence. (The similarities between Henderson-Uloho’s work and the narratives of other ex-offenders are not lost on her. “We’re both getting second chances,” she says in the film.) Henderson-Uloho also leads group-therapy sessions for female inmates, in which she helps the women rebuild their self-esteem and empowers them to create positive change.

In the film, Henderson-Uloho describes how many ex-offenders adapt well to entrepreneurial work. “We know how to come up from the trenches,” she says. “We know how to make something out of nothing. We know how to take a dime and make it a dollar.”

Gorjestani told me that hearing Henderson-Uloho speak about her work was inspiring, but that witnessing the impact of her work was a truly profound experience. “She’s a true advocate for them,” he said. “In the prison, we watched Maryam sit down in front of a group of disinterested women with their arms folded, and within an hour she had transformed the room, giving them all a newfound hope and a sense of a bond based on their shared struggle. By the end, she had these women hugging in a circle and smiling. It was one of the most moving experiences I have been a part of.”

“I want all ex-offenders to know they matter,” Henderson-Uloho says. “I want them to know that just because they’ve committed a crime, they’re no less of a human being.”

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Author: Emily Buder

About This Series

A showcase of cinematic short documentary films, curated by The Atlantic.