Kathy Hochul showed up at VICE's Brooklyn headquarters on Tuesday and asked if anyone had heard of the Erie Canal. As New York State's lieutenant governor explained, the navigable water route was originally the idea of a Geneva flour merchant stuck in debtor's prison. While he was locked up, the man wrote a series of detailed essays for a local newspaper about how commercial transportation might be improved. A politician who later became governor, DeWitt Clinton, took an interest in these ideas, and a decade after the articles' publication, construction began on what was then one of the most ambitious projects in American history.
"Two hundred years ago, we had a governor who knew the value of people who had paid their debt to society and had so much more to give," Hochul said.
Along with other officials from Governor Andrew Cuomo's office, Hochul was on hand to encourage companies to hire from the pool of roughly 2.3 million people with criminal records in New York. After airing an HBO Special called Fixing the System in 2015, in which Barack Obama became the first sitting president to visit a federal prison, VICE reached out to the Center for Employment Opportunities about a starting an apprenticeship program for former inmates.
Now five young men are halfway through the first iteration of the company's six-month initiative, and Hochul wants more local business owners to sign the "Work for Success" pledge online in an effort to provide new opportunities for formerly incarcerated people.
Among other things, signatories promise to "list suitable job openings" with Work for Success and "consider qualified individuals with criminal convictions for employment."
More than 80 businesses are already onboard, according to Alphonso David, counsel to the governor. Representatives from four of them—including VICE—spoke about the rewards of giving former inmates a second chance at life, a goal consistent with our long-standing coverage of America's criminal justice system.
"As a woman of color living in the United States, I've been very aware of the prison-industrial complex and how it's affected communities that I'm from," said Rachel Love, director of Human Resources at VICE Media. "But I've been very surprised at how quickly I've become emotionally invested and very attached to each of our apprentices and their growth and success."
One of the businesspeople on the panel was Coss Marte, a convicted former drug kingpin. He spoke about the dread and the shame of applying for—and being denied—jobs with a history like that looming over him. In his desperation, Marte said, he started ConBody, a fitness program that uses other former convicts as trainers and is based in Saks Fifth Avenue's flagship store.
The hope is the studio's work might soon spread to all of Saks's locations in New York.
Now a CEO, Marte asked the audience a rhetorical question of his own: Who among us had ever smoked weed? Unsurprisingly, many hands went up. Given that there are currently people sitting in prison for mere marijuana possession and that America's new attorney general, Jeff Sessions, is doubling down on draconian mandatory minimum sentencing laws, the exercise was meant to further break down the stigma of being a convict.
"We're gonna commit mistakes, we're gonna do something wrong," Marte said. "We shouldn't be judging other people for the worst thing they've ever done."
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