By the time Marilynn Winn was five years old, she had learned one thing unequivocally: Take what you need and don’t think twice about it.
Now 66 years old, Winn has a surprisingly keen memory of her early childhood. She recalls the extreme poverty she endured in Georgia; the ostracism she felt because of her complexion, which was lighter than the rest of her family members’; and her lack of parental supervision as her mother worked two jobs to keep them afloat. She also remembers how her grandmother occasionally took care of her while her mother was away. That was when Winn learned how to steal.
“In the grocery store, my grandmother used to say ‘take this’ or ‘eat this, quick,’ or ‘hide this,’” Winn said. “I grew up understanding that that was how you got the things you needed; I never knew there was another way. Learning that as a way of life at five and six years old, you carry that with you forever.”
Winn was eight years old the first time she was arrested for shoplifting and sent to a juvenile detention facility. The years that followed were characterized by more stealing, more arrests, and a stint in a youth development center. Just before her 18th birthday, Winn was arrested once more and sentenced to two years in a Georgia women’s prison.
When she was released, she knew exactly what she needed to do to keep herself from stealing again: get a job.
“I thought maybe I’d work for the City of Atlanta, and I was still young enough to make money to retire one day,” Winn said. “Nobody told me that I wasn’t going to get hired with a record, or that I’d have to lie about my past just to get a job.”
After being rejected from dozens of jobs and being fired from others because her employers found out she’d lied about having a record, Winn—now a young mother—felt “controlled by [her] past.”
“It’s not being in prison that’s the hardest, it’s the minute you walk out those doors and find out there’s nothing there for you,” Winn said. “What do you do? Where do you go?”
By October 2007, Winn no longer had hopes of retiring comfortably one day. At age 56, she had more than 20 felonies on her record and had been to prison six times. Her most recent Social Security statement said she’d be eligible to redeem just $200 a month by the time she was 62.
“I’d had plenty of jobs over the years, but I was never able to stay in them long enough for it to matter,” she said. “So I stole. All I could do was steal, get locked up, come out, then learn how to steal faster than before. I needed money and food and a place to live, and I thought the only way to get it if I couldn’t get a job was to steal.”
Winn was in court for yet another theft charge that October, being offered a five-year sentence in prison. This time, though, she told herself that prison was not an option. She pulled out her Social Security statement and showed it to the judge, hoping it would illustrate for him the circumstances that had led to her theft.
“What am I supposed to do?” she asked him. “He looked at me and said, ‘You’re right, there’s no program for your needs and no treatment I can send you to… I don’t know what I’m going to do, but I’m not going to send you to prison.’”
The judge eventually decided to place Winn in a diversionary court program where she was matched with a counselor and a case manager, and connected to employment services through First Step Staffing. Several weeks later, she was offered a job scanning bar codes on thousands of cars a day at the Manheim Auto Auction for $6.35 an hour, eight hours a week. She took it without hesitation.
“I made it my mission to learn everything there was to know about that car lot,” Winn said. “I received an award for being the first person to take an eight-hour-a-week job and turn it into 40 [hours a week].”
Winn worked at Manheim Auto Auction for more than three years before she injured herself and could no longer handle the physical demands of the job. With no medical benefits, and pressed to find money to pay rent, Winn found herself in an all-too-familiar position. This time, however, she chose not to shoplift, as she would’ve done in the past. Instead she went to Atlanta’s Center for Working Families (CWF) and asked for help revamping her résumé.
While working at the Manheim Auto Auction, she had begun volunteering at Georgia’s chapter of 9to5—a national nonprofit that focuses on improving economic outcomes for working women—where she’d been trained in community organizing and campaign building, skills she wanted reflected on her résumé. As soon as staff at the CWF sat down with Winn and heard about her qualifications, résumé help turned into a job offer.
“The COO told me, ‘We need you here, because everybody that comes through that door is just like you and they need your help,’” Winn said. “That was the first salaried job I’d had in my whole life. It was the first time I’d ever had benefits.”
Today, Winn is the founder and director of Women on the Rise, a membership-based organization led by women of color who were formerly incarcerated that focuses on improving public safety. She is currently a member of JustLeadershipUSA—a nonprofit that empowers people directly affected by the justice system to drive policy reform—and served as one of their 2016 Leading with Conviction Fellows. She is also a member of First Step Staffing’s Board of Directors and is the leader of the Georgia chapter of 9to5’s Ban the Box campaign, which calls on businesses and jurisdictions to remove the question about an applicant’s criminal history from job applications. As a result of Winn’s campaign, the City of Atlanta, several counties in the state, and the State of Georgia have all “banned the box” on their applications.
This month, Fulton County, Georgia—in collaboration with Women on the Rise and Solutions Not Punishment—will begin piloting the Pre-Arrest Diversion (PAD) Initiative, which aims to divert people who have committed low-level offenses from the criminal justice system when they would be better served by social services. Through PAD, specially trained law enforcement officers can ask a person who would otherwise be arrested and booked into jail if they’d like to enter the program. If they accept, a PAD representative will come to the scene, pick that person up, and connect them directly to the services they need.
“This is a people issue—you can’t arrest your way out of it and you can’t build enough prisons or jails to fix it. You have to go to the people and work on fixing the issues that they face,” Winn said. “If you don’t have someone like me in your family, you know someone like me.”