KINGSBRIDGE — Some 300 people gathered at Lehman College on Saturday for a day of motivational speeches, workshops and networking aimed at helping former convicts rebuild a life on the outside.
The “Prison to Prosperity” fair, which drew participants from across and beyond the city, offered a new look at life on the outside for many ex-convicts struggling to find their footing.
“You may have been to prison, but the most important thing is that your mind is not in prison,” said Loida Nicolas Lewis, the widow of African-American Wall Street mogul Reginald Lewis and a successful CEO of her own told a crowd of formerly incarcerated aspiring entrepreneurs.
“You know that quote by Bob Marley? Emancipate yourself from mental slavery,” she added.
The event offered spiritual and practical advice, as well as tips on building entrepreneurial skills.
“In our borough we spend $45 million to incarcerate people every year,” said Rev. Que English, who runs the Bronx Clergy Criminal Justice Roundtable and co-organized Saturday’s fair. “Perhaps there is another way. Entrepreneurship is going to lead the way in helping reduce the recidivism we’re facing.”
Harold Dean Trulear, who runs the Philadelphia-based Prisoner Reentry Project and introduced himself by his inmate ID number, told an attentive crowd that street experience could be applied to a different kind of hustling.
“If you don’t know how to handle inventory, it can result in serious bodily harm,” he joked, referring to drug dealing. “There are all kinds of things you’ve got going for you that you developed in years of drugs sales. You know how to count. You know how to be organized.”
“It becomes a matter of taking what you already know and applying it to the other side of the law,” he added. “Entrepreneurship is about finding your talent.”
Vidal Cintron, 22, of the South Bronx, won a raffle for a brand new laptop. He said the prize will help him work on his business plan without having to keep carrying a flash drive to the library.
Cintron was released in August after serving two years on a drug-related conviction, and said he hopes to start a chain of non-GMO food carts in the city, stocked with produce grown in “Babylon style” hanging urban farms.
“My theory is that if we can’t even get our food right, how can we go about solving our other big issues?” said Cintron, who became passionate about healthy eating during his time in a “shock” incarceration program — a military style booth camp that allows inmates an early parole.
Cintron, who quotes Steve Jobs while discussing his business vision, said that dealing drugs taught him something.
“I was already an entrepreneur, I was good at selling things,” he said. “But I’m done. I can’t go back in.”
Staying out, however, is often the greatest challenge, as former convicts find many doors are closed to them.
“For people who have criminal records in this country there are so many barriers to employment, education, housing, voting,” said Sheila Rule, co-founder of the Think Outside the Cell Foundation and co-organizer of the fair. “Unfortunately, you’re branded.”
Rule said this is why fair organizers chose to focus on entrepreneurship, an alternative made all the more important by the dire job market.
“It’s important to create your own opportunities, you own realistic second chance,” she said. Rule said that her organization also focuses on activism and is about to launch a campaign to overhaul the parole system.
“People come home and it’s not easy to create a new life, but at some point, when possible, we encourage those who have been to prison to really become involved,” she said. “Because who knows better than they? They are the experts.”
But for most, rebuilding a life has been difficult.
Tony McCoy, 40, came to the Bronx from Brooklyn looking for a job. He was laid off after his employer learned he lied about his incarceration in his job application.
“I was under the assumption that if you put yes, they won’t even look at you,” he said, adding that he doesn’t blame his employers. “Sometimes people don’t want to take a chance with someone who’s been convicted of a felony. But everybody’s not bad that has been incarcerated,” he added. “That’s hard to deal with. I get frustrated.”
McCoy, who served seven years after being convicted of manslaughter at 16, said that going home has been rough and that finding work is the greatest challenge.
He didn’t get a job at the fair, but did a mock interview and picked up fliers from groups offering financial, educational, and psychological support.
“Something like this helps me see that not everything is down,” he said. “People are willing to help.”
But to some, stories like McCoy’s show that those looking to start fresh might need to rely firstly on themselves.
“The future of employment for those of us with jackets is not in the marketplace, it’s not working for someone else,” said Trulear, of the Philadelphia reentry project, adding that finding work is hard enough for those with degrees and a clean rap sheet.
“The future for us is ourselves.”