CLINTON TWP., NJ – When Glenna Gray saw the women huddled together outside under a flimsy, open-air plastic cover, with their arms inside their thin sweatshirts trying to keep warm, she wondered what was going on.
Sometimes they were alone, without even a friend to sit next to for warmth.
They were women released from Edna Mahan Correctional Facility here – the only women’s prison in the state. For them, “the first minutes of civilian life are met with a literal and metaphorical cold reality,” Gray said.
Prison officials say that the women are offered proper warm attire upon release. But the prison-issued clothing certainly isn’t fashionable, and it brands the women as something they’d rather leave behind. That’s disputed by some recent inmates, who say that such clothing isn’t provided by the state.
Either way, Gray decided to do something about it. She started the Warm Start charity and began providing coats to the women.
The gesture, Gray said, leaves some of the recipients “shocked to tears.”
Although Mahan is known as a “correctional facility,” Gray asks, “What have we ‘corrected’ when we leave someone to freeze, alone, confused, and humiliated?”
Of course, Gray knows that she can’t succeed alone. So she created a website as well as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts to help spread the word of her mission.
“We accept donations of new and used winter apparel, and hand deliver the items to women in need,” Gray says. “Our donors help to ensure that the basic human rights of warmth and dignity are upheld for women who are starting out and reentering society. We believe that a warm start sends a crucial message that everyone deserves respect, regardless of their circumstances.”
The website states that the group “provides new and used coats, mittens, hats and scarves to released inmates so that they can start their journey home feeling warm and respected. The gift of a warm coat communicates the right to dignity; affirming the right to warmth tells someone ‘you are worthy.’ Reintegration starts with a message of compassion.”
Many of the contributions come from caring individuals. Some have donated handmade scarves. Annandale Reformed Church hosted a coat drive.
To donate to Warm Start, fill out the contact form on the group’s website. You can use the same form if you know of a newly-released inmate who is in need.