Here are some sobering truths about America, the so-called “greatest nation on earth”. Apart from the well-known fact that we are the most heavily armed country in the world, and not surprisingly the nation that has the most gun-related deaths, we also boast the largest prison population in the world, and it is growing.
Close to 2 million people occupy our prisons, serving sentences of a year or longer, but some estimate the number of people in federal, state and county jails is as high as 12 million once you factor in the inmates who cycle through the system in less than a year. It’s also heavily documented that the majority of inmates in America today are black men. This fact along with the horrific minimum sentencing laws brought about during Ronald Reagan’s failed “war on drugs” in the 1980s has contributed to a clogged up and expensive system that does not work.
In 2015 President Obama became the first sitting president to visit a federal prison, taking along VICE media cameras with him as he spoke to men at El Reno prison, outside Oklahoma City to find out their stories, get a sense of where society is failing them, and how the government can effectively reform prison sentences.
While all eyes have been on the men who suffer the most under this system, let’s not forget there are many women who are also caught in a cycle of incarceration, stigma, poverty and loss. Like the men, there are more women incarcerated in the US today than in any other country, and mandatory minimum sentencing have led to over-crowding in prisons.
An estimated 200,000 + women were behind bars in 2013, according to the International Center for Prison Studies, and as many as 44% of female prisoners don’t have a high school diploma. The same organization believes the number of women in prisons affects families more than incarcerating men, where 64% of women in prison today in America lived with children before their imprisonment. 64.1% Are imprisoned for non-violent crimes, yet the stigma is with them for life which makes it hard for them to find jobs.
One area that needs to be addressed more thoroughly is the reintegration of prisoners into society upon release, because there is a high number of inmates likely to re-offend and end up back behind bars. It comes down to economics – keeping people behind bars for excessive amounts of time is a burden on tax-payers. But at the same time, the stigma former inmates face when they look for steady work after their sentence is served can be too great.
The “have you previously been convicted of a crime or felony?” question on any employment form is something every former inmate dreads. A number of states, cities and counties have brought in laws which now ban employers from asking this question. But this is just the start. Individual business owners have to be part of the economic prison reform, employing men and women and giving them a chance at putting their past behind them once and for all.
We came across one particular company that is doing this in an incredible way. Road 22 is a clothing label based out of California which boasts a stylish basic luxury tees and accessories for women and men, but which is certainly not the most impressive aspect of the company. The name comes from the road leading out of Chowchilla State Prison in California, the largest women’s prison in the country.
According to the Road 22 website, it is also the largest women’s correctional facility in the world. In a bid to help the women as they leave prison and re-integrate into normal life, the company employs former inmates in order to break the stigma and give them a chance. It is this aspect that drew us to wanting to find out more from the founders, one of whom is well-acquainted with starting over. Road 22 was founded by Fif Ghobadian and Alice Larkin Cahan. Fif and her family lived through the Iranian revolution, and is loving proof of what happens when someone is given a chance at starting a new life.
We had the chance to talk with both of these incredible social justice-minded entrepreneurs about the brand, their stories and why they decided to help former female prison inmates. .
Tell us about your background growing up in Iran and moving to the US.
I grew up in an affluent family in Iran and then moved to London at the beginning of the revolution. With my family, I moved to the U.S. in my last year of high school. We moved to Marin County in northern California.
Within two to three years after leaving Iran my parents lost all of their money much of which was tied up there. They loaned money to friends and were never paid back. They made bad and uneducated investment in the U.S. all of which failed. My dad struggled to find work. My dad and I remained in California while my mom and sister moved back overseas.
What were some of the hardships you endured as a family integrating into life in a new country having escaped a religious revolution?
Everything was hard. There is nothing easy about surviving a revolution. You lose your home, family, friends, money. Everything changes. You have to start all over. Moving to a new country as a teen presents challenges – from understanding a different sense of humor to making friends and integrating.
What made you want to start your own business?
A deep desire to do something that makes a difference in the world.
Tell us about Road 22 designs and how it came about.
We wanted to create classic, casual clothing in beautiful fabrics. Wardrobe staples that you reach for constantly.
We started with T-shirts and put an obsessive amount of time into the fit and creating shirts that would look good and drape well on a range of body types. We now also make sweatshirts and tanks. We think we are creating The indispensable tee, the sweatshirt you never want to take off, the versatile tank to dress up for nights out and slip into for mornings in.
Each shirt has a unique small detail or Road 22 edge as we like to say to set them apart. That detail can be a graphic, a raw edge, a patch.
While creating luxury basics we wanted to spread the word on incarceration. One of our first hires was Kerrigan, formerly homeless and addicted to drugs, who under Alice’s guidance continues created really cool graphics which appear on a number of our shirts.
There is deep significance in the name and the women the brand is helping, can you expand on this?
Road 22 is named for the road leading out of the Central California Women’s Correctional Facility, the largest women’s correctional facility in the world. Women are released with $200 in their pockets, hardly enough to put them anywhere but back on the streets. That’s where we can help.
Initially we wanted to employ women formerly at the state prison to sew our shirts. We learned that the women sewing at Chowchilla are lifers. We like to think we are paving a new road for the women we are helping.
Today the US is known as the most incarcerated country in the world. What are some of the statistics relating to women specifically that would shock many people?
Most shocking is the rate of increase in number of women in prisons. The latest stats are as follows:
- The number of women in prison grew 646% between 1980 and 2010 (from 15,118 to 112,797).
- The number of women in prison grew 1.5x more than the number of men in the same period.
- 80% of women in prison are moms.
- 67% of women end up back in prison within 3 years of release.
Why is it important for you to help these women get back on their feet again?
I know how hard it is when you have stakes against you. I’ve experienced that first hand. Everybody deserves a chance. If you make a mistake the door should not be shut forever.
Without a paycheck and mentoring, the cycle of poverty will not be broken. The numbers support women ending up back in the prison system.
We see a number of brands holding strong ties with the philanthropic world such as Toms and The Giving Keys. What is the message you hope Road 22 will spread in the world?
The brands you mention such as Toms with strong philanthropic ties are great models and are paving a great path. Road 22 strives to help an under-served segment with the US, where there is also great need.
We hope that we are able to create understanding and awareness of the challenges that non-violent offenders face trying to get back on their feet. The women we women are hiring are great employees. In so many cases, they end up in prison due to life circumstances. They never really had a chance.
What makes you a powerful woman?
I don’t think of myself as powerful. I am determined more than powerful. If I have something in my mind, I make it happen.
Alice Larkin Cahan
Tell us about growing up in London and your fashion background?
I grew up in a family immersed in fashion. Both my parents worked in the industry. I started tailoring my clothes myself around 12. Then it was mostly adjusting my school uniforms. I then graduated to cutting my t-shirts for an edgier and more flattering look. There was an element of fashion to everything I did.
I moved to NYC to study at the Fashion Institute of Technology. In New York, I sold European designer collections at private trunk shows and became a stylist for high profile executives and the social set.
At Road Twenty Two, I am solving the problem of finding the elusive perfect T-shirt that has a great, flattering fit, yet is also soft and comfortable.
How did you meet Fif and decide to start a business with her?
Fif approached me as a fellow parent at our kids school. It was a perfect match for my skill set and desired next step. The timing was perfect. My youngest daughter was 7 and I was ready to move beyond my work as a stylist. I was looking to combine my fashion background with philanthropy.
Why did you both decide to create a brand and business model that would help women who come out of prison?
We know how hard it is to open doors when they are shut. It was truly after Fif read “Orange is the New Black” when she had the idea to help this segment. After my first visit to Chowcilla, I was deeply committed to the cause and bringing about change.
What were some of the most shocking things you learned about the prison system while creating Road 22?
There are a number. It was really shocking to find out how many moms are in prison, how many women are in for non-violent crimes, and how high the recidivism rate is. Also, shocking is that the rate of women in prison is increasing at a much faster rate than the number of men in prison.
Fashion is more commonly known as a superficial industry only focused on the external. How do you hope Road 22 will change this perspective?
Fashion is a powerful form of expression. Fashion is becoming a vehicle for change. It seemed worth a shot to use fashion as a means to bring awareness to the need to give women chance.
Why do you think it is important for women to support each other?
As a female-run business we recognize barriers and challenges other women face. It is important to support each other.
Can you tell us about any of the women you have met from Chowchilla whose stories have impacted you greatly?
Kimberly, one of our employees and a former Chowchilla inmate, has most personally impacted me. It is amazing to work with her and see help her gain skills and confidence. Her story:
Kimberly, who was arrested for dealing drugs shortly after giving birth. When she was released from prison a year-and-a-half later, her baby daughter didn’t recognize her. After serving her sentence, Kimberly found work off and on as a cleaner, and continued to struggle with heroin addiction, living in shelters, and turned tricks to earn extra cash. Through Glide Memorial Church, she discovered Road 22, where she was hired to do finishing work and is training to become a seamstress. She now has a steady income, her own room in an SRO, and takes pride in making things.
What do you hope consumers and fans of the brand will take away most when thinking about Road 22?
We hope our fans will feel good that their Road 22 purchase is changing lives in the U.S. They are helping to make a difference. We want our taglines: What You Do Matters, What You Wear Matters and Luxury Basics that Change Lives to resonate.
What makes you a powerful woman?
I also don’t consider myself powerful. I am confident, decisive and a problem solver. I know who I am.
To purchase clothing or accessories from Road 22, shop on their website and know you are making a direct difference in the lives of women around the country. To read stories of some of the women employed by Road 22, click here.