Growing up in Brownsville, Brooklyn, in the 1960s, Gene Manigo remembers promising himself that if his father hit his mother again he would stand up to him. But after Manigo's father left, he, his mother, and his siblings had to fend for themselves in a rough neighborhood, he says. Then, Manigo claims, his mother's new boyfriend tried to kill him, so he had to make a decision, kill or be killed.
Manigo says he was on the run for 10 years after the murder. When the law finally caught up with him, Manigo says he was working as the head of security for a ship building company in San Diego. The U.S. Marshals brought him back to New York in 1984 and a judge gave him 30 years in prison. Manigo says he regrets taking the man's life. After serving his sentence, Manigo got out in 2014, and two years later, thanks to a Brooklyn business incubator focused on helping former convicts become entrepreneurs, Manigo owns his own custom furniture company.
"Coming up from my neighborhood, I never had anything. But I knew there was another society, a whole world, outside of Brownsville," says Manigo. "Refoundry and entrepreneurship helped me get out of the system, find myself, and prove to myself that I can become part of society."
Refoundry is a not-for-profit incubator based in a warehouse in the Brooklyn Navy Yard founded by furniture and social mission entrepreneurs Cisco Pinedo and Tommy Safian. It offers paid training at a nearby carpentry program, mentorship, studio space, and tools, and helps its members learn how to make furniture, start their own business, and sell pieces at venues like the weekly Brooklyn Flea, the largest flea market in New York City. In the past two months, since Manigo launched Kambui Custom Craft, he has made around $5,000 by selling mirrors, tables, and other pieces of furniture and home decor at the flea market, to private clients he finds through referrals, and during pop-up shows at stores like West Elm.
One of Refoundry's goals is to help stem the rampant recidivism of formerly incarcerated people in the American prison system. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, 650,000 people are released from federal and state prison each year. After one year, half of the former inmates will get re-arrested and sent back. After three years, 66 percent will be back in prison and 75 percent go back in five years. Refoundry is trying to help reverse that trend one person at a time.
"We get a negative return on our investment in criminal justice, from law enforcement to court to incarceration to post-incarceration," says Safian. "Within two to three years, our members will get off social services and stop drawing from the tax base and start contributing to the tax base by creating their own small businesses."
Before graduating the program, each of the four Refoundry members works 40 hours a week, and once they are capable of taking orders and making furniture by themselves, Refoundry helps the members incorporate their company and allows them stay until they can rent their own studio space. Since its launch in April 2015, Refoundry members have sold about $135,000 of merchandise.
James Eleby, a member who started at the same time as Manigo, launched his company Eleby Designs, this fall and has already made over $11,000 by selling his custom tables to a list of clients he cultivated while at the Brooklyn Flea, including a new restaurant in Brooklyn that hired him to make all the tables and chairs from reclaimed wood.
Eleby says he's spent 21 out of the past 48 years behind bars. He's been out for more than two years, the longest period of time since he started going to jail as a teenager. Growing up in low-income housing in Harlem and Staten Island, New York, in the 1970s, most of Eleby's role models wound up in prison. Eleby saw men in his neighborhood, including his father, sent away for all kinds of crimes including armed robbery and drug dealing.
"I was told you are not a man until you go to prison," says Eleby. "I believed this stuff. But I realized that you are not a man in prison--they are clothing you and feeding you. The only responsibility you have is to do what you're told, or else you get beat on and thrown in the box (solitary confinement)."
Manigo and Eleby both say they are off all forms of public assistance and that their businesses are picking up steam.
Safian and Pinedo bootstrapped Refoundry with $100,000 of their own capital. Safian says the organization doesn't take federal funding because it would restrict what they can do. If Refoundry were to take government funding, they would have to accept every applicant that walks in without assessment and place people in jobs in six to eight weeks, which means the training is in low-level jobs with low wages and high turnover. Manigo and Eleby have been training for over a year and created their own career path and businesses.
"Manual labor is important for society, it's honorable work, but its not for everyone coming out of prison," says Safian. "Formerly incarcerated people have real skills--conflict resolution and working, negotiating within a bureaucracy, ability to seize opportunities, and patience. This is the most under-used talent pool. People are people, no matter if they went to prison or not."
At 7:30 a.m., in mid November, Eleby shoulders one end of a 375-pound wood table as his son, also named James, helps carry it down two flights of stairs. Eleby hired his son to help him with his business, and on this particular day the father-son duo are bringing a client's table to the workshop for custom repairs. Eleby was in prison for the majority of his son's life, but now is catching up for lost time.
"Once Tommy showed me I could start my own business, be my own boss, and make my own money, I knew I would never go back to prison," says Eleby.
Safian says Refoundry is waiting to raise more funding to accept a new class of members. He says the success of the Refoundry's first class shows how entrepreneurship and a business perspective can help get people readjusted to society and become self-sufficient after serving time in prison.
"There is a tremendous amount of talent coming out prison," says Safian. "They just need opportunity and a chance to readjust to society."