CLEVELAND — More than half a million people are released from prison every year across the country. In one way or another, all will face the challenges of reintegration into society. For those who have been wrongfully imprisoned, these challenges can be compounded. However, with support and determination, such an exonerated is thriving.
Shortly after being released from prison after a judge overturned his 2003 murder conviction, Ruel Sailor launched his branded clothing line, Comma Club, and began selling merchandise from his trunk. The name of the company has two meanings: the metaphorical “short break” that his 15 years in prison served in his life and, also, an acronym for “creating opportunities, making more achievements”. The story of his wrongful conviction and the message his clothing brand conveys quickly began to take hold.
“I kept trying to sell them from my trunk and it just kept growing and it kept growing,” Sailor said. “I [thought]”Well, it’s going to be cold, so if they want hoodies, I’m onto something.”
They did it. It was. And he hasn’t looked back since.
Although he admits he didn’t have a full business plan at the time, the open storefront at 589 East 185th St. was fate, Sailor said.
“When I got home from prison, that’s where I bought my first phone. It had sentimental value,” Sailor said. “I’m pretty sure [customers gravitate toward] my story. I’m cool with that but I’m pretty sure that’s my story.
In August, it will celebrate the second anniversary of the opening of its physical store. “Wall Street” West, who successfully reintegrated into society after serving 10 years in prison, has become a loyal follower of the brand as well as its message. West is involved in a litany of different organizations focused on supporting people transitioning from prison and back to normal life. He is also acutely aware of the challenges reform prisoners face.
“I believe in everything about him and he’s been a great role model for me as a grown man. It’s his personal influence on me, which is why I’m so loyal to the brand,” West said. “There’s a real mental health issue in the lives of people who’ve been in prison. It’s overlooked. It can just be labeled as ‘he’s crazy, he’s tripping’ or he’s institutionalized and it’s not We are dealing psychologically with things over which we have no control.
Researchers have termed this phenomenon “post-incarceration syndrome” (PICS), which includes symptoms such as antisocial behavior, a tendency towards impulsive violence, sleep disturbances and other illnesses. These issues, coupled with difficulties finding housing, employment as well as financial and emotional support, are why reintegrating into society is so difficult, said Tim Lewis, founder of nonprofit Pound 4 Profit. .
“The immediate challenges that a lot of the guys I work with face are just a resource,” Lewis said. “You need emotional support just to acclimate, just to receive true love and to be able to accept the impact of people who have been waiting for you to come home.”
Lewis said Sailor’s transition into society — and her willingness to help others go through the same process — serves as a role model.
“What made this possible was the excuse of not having an excuse,” Lewis said. “To see him tell a success story, from the trunk to the front of a store, was definitely a privilege. He used that comma as a short pause between a story.
On Saturday, Pound 4 Profit and GreenHarvest Health will host a panel discussion on the barriers ex-prisoners face when reintegrating into society. The ongoing “Taste of Freedom” series will take place at the Cleveland School of Cannabis. More information can be found here.