Eugene Manigo pieced together planks of different shades and finishes as he hammered them atop a piece of plywood that took up almost a third of the 500-square-foot workroom in Gowanus.
Manigo is only just getting started on what will eventually become an 8-foot-long headboard, but the 63-year-old has no shortage of patience. He spent 29 years and six months in prisons across New York State.
For 20 of those almost 30 years,Manigosaid he would opt to spend time in the prison’s workroom, hammering at road signs and working on office desks.
“It gave me a sense of self,” he said as he drilled the planks into place. “I’m doing what I want to do, which is working with my hands and being creative — being useful.”
Manigo is one of five formerly incarcerated men selected to kick off Refoundry, a re-entry nonprofit focused on transforming what might be otherwise discarded into something that can be appreciated.
Refoundry was designed by co-founders Tommy Safian and Cisco Pinedo to provide the training and support necessary for men and women to start their own business. They do so through refurbishing furniture and scraps into fashionably practical goods.
“We started with four guys in late April out of pocket,”Safiansaid, adding that the group sold more than $45,000 worth of goods within 12 weeks of launching.
Having previously run a successful furniture store in Brooklyn,Safianreadily admits he doesn’t have much of a background in nonprofits or criminal justice reform.
Nonetheless, he and Pinedo — who created a popular sustainable furniture brand in California — wanted to find a way to engage some of the thousands of New Yorkers who struggle to find stability after incarceration.
In New York State, the number of offenders who return to prisons within three years has consistently hovered around 40 percent for the last two decades, according to a 2014 corrections report.
“That’s one of the problems with a lot of guys,” said Manigo, who spent almost three decades behind bars for second-degree murder. “They don’t have an outlet. Refoundry can give them something to focus on. It helps them see something better, or at least it does for me.”
With Refoundry, participants earn a living wage for working five days a week plus the occasional Saturday flea market to sell their handmade products, pocketing a portion of the earnings themselves as they help Refoundry grow.
Unlike some other re-entry programs,Safianexplained slots for participants will open up as demand for their work grows, although demand currently is already exceeding expectations.
Until the group can afford a larger work space, the men work in a shop space on loan from BIG Reuse on 9th Street, which also sells their work at the front of the house. Other goods also make it to the Brooklyn Flea, with proceeds being directed right back into growing the program.
The furniture can range in price, butSafiansaid they hope to make goods accessible to working class New Yorkers even in a market dominated by easy-to-assemble Swedish products.
To help meet some of that demand, Refoundry launched a Kickstarter campaign in mid September, already earning more than half of their $45,000 goal through more than 400 backers.
Any money earned would help Refoundry eventually relocate into a larger space in Sunset Park’s Industry City, whereSafian said theyare already commissioned to build seating for the Brooklyn Flea and Smorgasburg as they move indoors for the wintertime.
Once Refoundry gets its own permanent space,Safianhopes to offer physical space for each participant to develop their own companies and workforce.
“Refoundry gives me an opportunity to own my own business though, to provide for myself and my family,” said James Eleby as he took a break from the table tops he was finishing.
“You can get a job anywhere with this training, but to be in a position where you can work for yourself — that’s what this is about,” Eleby said.
Eleby, 47, celebrated his first year home since his most recent release in October after 23 years in and out of prison for robbery.
“I watched my children grow up during prison visits, promising it’d be different when I’d come home” Eleby said.
“I don’t remember being home more than 60 days without being re-arrested,” Eleby added. “This is the chance, the break that I needed.”
For more information on Refoundry: