Annie’s Hands Helps Formerly Incarcerated Women Dress for Success and Ready for the Workplace

Breaking the Cycle

Ashley Walker. (Picture by Annie’ Hands)
Ashley Walker. (Picture by Annie’ Hands)

For seven years, Ashley Walker has been free from the revolving door that was the criminal justice system. Between the ages of 18 and 27, Walkers was in and out of trouble due to untreated mental health issues. When family cut her off and friends were far and few, she was stuck with no support system and little chance to find employment.

“It was a constant cycle of going in and out, and whoever I was staying with would get rid of all my clothes. So, I would get out with nothing but the clothes on my back and have to start all over,” Walker said.

Ashley Walker makes her first trip to Robert E. Ellsworth Correctional Facility. (Picture by Annie’s Hands)
Ashley Walker makes her first trip to Robert E. Ellsworth Correctional Facility. (Picture by Annie’s Hands)

She had lived in Jefferson Co. her entire life and with the small-town atmosphere, jail was a phone call away, as one wrong look could have somebody on the line with her probation officer. Through it all, she had a positive attitude and was ready for a new start.

It was when she reconnected with a friend, who was living in Milwaukee with her grandmother, Annie that her life began to turn around. Walker finally had the family environment that she needed to flourish. She became a self-taught nail technician. She even dated and later married her long-time friend, Annie’s grandson.

Business Owner and Community Advocate

After opening her nail salon in December 2020, she was ready to help women who were once in her position. She wanted to build a support system for them, the same way Annie helped her.

“I always wanted to give back, but I had to get myself together first,” Walker said.

Annie’s Hands is a support system for formerly incarcerated women. (Picture by Annie’s Hands)
Annie’s Hands is a support system for formerly incarcerated women. (Picture by Annie’s Hands)

She would reconnect with formerly incarcerated women online, but it seemed to only happen when somebody they knew died. She was inspired to do something positive. She wanted women to encourage each other and endorse their accomplishments.

Walker always thought about a clothing program and when she saw friends posting their clothes online for free, it reminded her of a time when she needed a job and couldn’t look presentable.

“The prison system gives you whatever they have on hand that fits you. It doesn’t matter if it matches or looks good, they don’t care. It’s like ‘Here’s some clothes, now get out of here,’” she said. “I know what it’s like to get out and not have anything but the clothes on your back, or anything appropriate to wear to a job interview. It’s already set up for failure, and I didn’t want what happened to me, to happen to somebody else.”

Just as Annie was her long-needed support system, Walker decided to honor her caring and generosity through ‘Annie’s Hands in August 2020. The donation-based organization provides clothes to women’s criminal justice facilities across Wisconsin.

The Power of Social Media

Though donations have been pouring in now, her first trip almost didn’t happen.

“I posted my first video on Facebook, and I really didn’t get a whole lot of interest and ended up with four garbage bags of clothing,” Walker said. “The first donation picture was because I went through my closet and donated six or seven bags of my own stuff because I wasn’t going to show up at the prison with only four bags of clothes. I made a commitment and I told them I was going to pull through.”

She then posted a video of her first delivery at the Robert E. Ellsworth Correctional Center in Union Grove, WI.

Bags, bags, bags!  Annie’s Hands plans on making many more trips in the future. (Picture by Annie’s Hands)
Bags, bags, bags! Annie’s Hands plans on making many more trips in the future. (Picture by Annie’s Hands)

“The outpouring was crazy. After that first post, I think I had 12 bags dropped off that day, and it’s picked up from there,” she said. “Last time, I showed up, the guy working said ‘How many bags? Five to ten?’ I was like, ‘It’s more like 20 to 30.’”

The FREE Campaign, an Ex-incarcerated People Organizing (EXPO) program that aims to focus on the unique challenges women experience after incarceration, has also helped Annie’s Hands by hosting clothing drives in Chippewa Falls and Fond Du Lac.

“I wasn’t expecting it to blow up like it has—it’s very surprising,” she said. “I’m going to need to rent a U-Haul for all of it!”

Along with providing clothing, she has also offered to transport recently released women from jail or prison without a ride, and even help with resumes and filling out applications. Whether it’s a job lead or some support or advice on a situation, she will always be there.

“If it wasn’t for a family’s support, I really don’t know where I’d be. I don’t know if I would’ve turned it around,” Walker said. “I started Annie’s Hands because I wanted to be that for someone else.”

For more information on Annie’s Hands, click here.

Maria Peralta-Arellano is a Milwaukee-native journalist who focuses on sharing news from her local communities. She dedicates her work to accessibility and producing bilingual coverage focused on arts, culture, and politics. She looks to explore her community through a journalistic and creative lens.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top