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Vision, Purpose and Service Behind Bars

Randi Craigen - Monday, September 21, 2015

Troy Rienstra is an artist. Using only hand-held chisels, cutting and tooling stamps, he creates beautiful, custom leather briefcases with exquisite detailing and hand stitching. It takes over 40 working hours, start to finish, to complete just one briefcase. Troy hand dyes, treats, cuts and punches all of his materials, without the use of machines. The result is a beautiful, yet functional, high-quality work of art that will last any business person a lifetime—guaranteed. A lifetime is also the sentence Troy is currently serving in a Michigan correctional facility.

Though he grew up in a Christian home and attended Christian schools, in his teen years Troy rejected his family and the faith they represented. By age 19 Troy had a juvenile record and was facing a five year sentence with the Michigan Department of Corrections. A year and a half after being granted parole, he returned to prison--this time with a life sentence and the label “habitual criminal.” Troy racked up numerous violations during the early years of his sentence, resulting in years of “no visitors allowed” and eventually an entire year in solitary confinement. It was during this year of isolation that Troy finally began the journey back to the faith he had been taught, embracing it as his own and becoming a different man.

Troy’s genuine experience of repentance, forgiveness and restoration was transformational. He became a model prisoner, earning the respect of fellow inmates and corrections staff alike. Troy’s life became one of vision, purpose, and service. He took advantage of opportunities to educate himself, better his skills, and serve those around him. Leather crafting is just one of the skills he had the opportunity to learn and develop.

Once offered throughout Michigan’s 40 prisons, leather-craft programs are still available in three Michigan facilities where prisoners are allowed to teach other prisoners the craft. Troy worked regularly on smaller projects so that he could practice and develop his skill by giving attention to detail. Once he got started, he found that he truly enjoyed working with his hands and seeing the fruit of his labor. His first large project was a briefcase that he made as a Christmas gift. The response was so great, that Troy decided to continue making them with hopes of finding his place in the hand-crafted, leather briefcase market. He and a fellow inmate now work together making Zaken (a Dutch word for businesses) custom briefcases.

Using the 24 principles of StartingUp Now (SUN), Troy has developed a plan for Zaken Leather Works to become a viable business with a social conscience. His vision is for Zaken to employ, educate and economically empower formerly incarcerated individuals. He’d like to say they make bags to rebuild lives. Troy’s goal is to become a trained SUN Facilitator with hopes of having the necessary support to offer the program to other prisoners so they might be prepared to implement a realistic and well thought-out plan for business and life upon their release. He’s already helping develop a program called Citizenship Academy (CITAC), with the mission of offering a complete curriculum--which will include StartingUp Now--to address the academic, economic and restorative needs of incarcerated people so they might re-enter society as productive citizens. CITAC is in its infancy right now, but in time Troy believes it will make a major contribution to the push for prison reform, as prisoners begin to live as upstanding citizens during their time of incarceration. Troy’s natural leadership abilities and the positive example of his own reformed behavior encourages other prisoners that a life of value is still possible. Troy’s prayer is that an upcoming hearing before the parole board will result in the opportunity for him to re-enter society as a citizen in good standing and begin making the kind of positive impact outside the prison walls as he’s been making inside.*

*Update: Troy was granted parole at his hearing and has returned to society as a citizen in good standing! Troy is looking forward to developing his business, as well as teaching others to use their unique gifts, ideas and dreams to be productive citizens.

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