Replacing Prison Uniforms With Custom Suits

Prison limits self-expression. Inmates are usually forced to identify as a number and, for the most part, can only wear a standard-issue uniform.

After living that way for decades, how do you rekindle a sense of personal style?

Six exonerees involved with the Innocence Project, which works to overturn wrongful convictions using scientific methods like DNA, recently tried to answer that question with help from employees at Bindle & Keep, a suit maker in Brooklyn.

On a windy day in mid-May, four men and two women whose convictions were overturned in the last year made their way to Bindle & Keep’s studio near the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where they tried on sample garments, selected fabrics and were meticulously measured for custom suits.

“I’m going to be cleaner than the board of health,” Renay Lynch, 68, said after seeing her reflection in a navy velvet tuxedo jacket that she had tried on. Ms. Lynch, who was convicted of the murder and the robbery of her landlord, was exonerated in January after serving 26 years in prison in Buffalo.

She hopes to write a book about her life and thought that a suit would be a perfect outfit for promotional events. “This makes a statement, and I don’t even have to say anything,” Ms. Lynch said of the jacket she was trying on, which had silk lapels.

Though exonerations are granted only to a small fraction of those who have been in prison, they have become more commonplace in recent years thanks to scientific advancements and organizations like the Innocence Project, which was founded in 1992.

But inmates are often released with no money or credit to borrow it. Most exonerees file civil suits against the counties where they were imprisoned, in hopes of receiving some sort of compensation for their wrongful convictions. (Five of the six exonerees at Bindle & Keep were pursuing such lawsuits.) Inmates can also face mental health issues that complicate their adjustment to life outside prison.

These are all reasons that Bindle & Keep offers suits to the newly exonerated, said Ashley Merriman, 47, a partner at the company, which was started in 2011 by Daniel Friedman, its head tailor. Ms. Merriman said that since Bindle & Keep began working with the Innocence Project in 2016, about 50 exonerees have received free custom suits, which normally start at about $1,200.

“We hope the suits help exonerees feel more confident and empowered,” she said. “We want to provide an experience where they feel seen and heard, and where they have the agency to pick out their own clothing.”

Perry Lott had served 30 years in prison in Ada, Okla., on charges of rape and burglary before his conviction was overturned last fall. “I felt like I found a secret door out,” he said of being exonerated.

Mr. Lott, 62, likes getting dressed: He came to Bindle & Keep wearing brown penny loafers with pennies in their slots. The promise of a new suit made this chapter of his life only more exciting.

“I’m not a number anymore,” he said.

Carlton Lewis, 57, had a hard time wrapping his head around the fact that he was being measured for a suit as a free man. After being convicted of second-degree murder in Syracuse, N.Y., in 1990, he spent more than three decades behind bars before being released on the day before Thanksgiving in 2021. His conviction was overturned in August.

Mr. Lewis picked out an ash black suit with a silky lining. The fitting was “mind-blowing,” he said, not least because there were many times in prison when he imagined himself doing “what a regular man is supposed to be doing in life.”

Leonard Mack, 72, described being at Bindle & Keep as a sort of moment of vindication. Mr. Mack was convicted of rape and criminal possession of a weapon in White Plains, N.Y., in 1976. He was released on parole about seven years later, but his conviction wasn’t overturned until last September.

“I knew that one day I would be here,” he said. “I didn’t know when and I didn’t know how. If I didn’t do it, my innocence was going to be proven.”

Mr. Mack, who wore a hat identifying him as a Vietnam War veteran to the fitting, said his new suit would be ideal to wear on the occasions he serves as a volunteer minister.

“I want people to see that there’s something different about Leonard Mack,” he said.

Tyrone Day also steadfastly maintained he was innocent after being convicted of sexual assault in Dallas in 1990. In 1994, spurred by the broadcast of O.J. Simpson’s murder trial, he began looking into using DNA evidence to clear his name.

“I never gave up on my innocence,” said Mr. Day, 53, who was imprisoned for 26 years and had to register as a sex offender before he was exonerated last May. “I always dreamed and had an outlook that it will happen like it happened.” Since being released, he helped start Restorative Farms, a community organization in Dallas that aims to provide fresh produce and create local farming jobs.

Mr. Day chose a royal blue fabric with gray streaks and a purple interior lining for his suit. Purple, he said, is “mine and my wife’s favorite color.”

Sometimes, an overturned conviction can offer only so much of a new beginning.

Rosa Jimenez, who was exonerated in August, had spent almost two decades in prison after she was convicted of murder in 2003 when a toddler she was babysitting in Austin, Texas, choked to death on paper towels. While serving her prison sentence, Ms. Jimenez was diagnosed with kidney disease.

The fresh start brought by her exoneration has come with stipulations, she said, including a move from her native Texas to New York to improve her chances of receiving a kidney transplant, the wait for which can be yearslong.

Ms. Jimenez came to Bindle & Keep with her arm still bandaged from an earlier dialysis session. “I still really don’t have my life yet,” she said.

That has not stopped her from planning her future. Ms. Jimenez picked out a pink suit with a rose-colored paisley lining and wide-leg trousers. The outfit was for a big wedding she is planning with her wife, M.J. Flores, whom she legally married this year at an intimate civil ceremony in New York.

“One day we just got up and decided to get married,” Ms. Jimenez said. “Now we want to get married at the church.”

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