TOPICS > Economy

How to Succeed in Business by Really, Really Trying

July 27, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Is the aptitude for business (the legal kind) distributed among convicted criminals as it is in the general population? One seasoned executive thinks so, and believes that by hiring the cream of the ex-con crop, his company will have a leg up on the competition. Paul Solman reports as part of his Making Sen$e series.
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TRANSCRIPT

JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight, the second of two reports about college classes for convicts.

Last night, NewsHour economics correspondent Paul Solman profiled a unique program at a New York state prison. Tonight: what happens to some of those felons when they look for a job.

It’s part of Paul’s ongoing reporting, Making Sense of financial news.

ANTHONY CARDENALES, Bard Prison Initiative: Frank, you need glasses?

(LAUGHTER)

PAUL SOLMAN: A homecoming of sorts for Anthony Cardenales at Woodbourne prison in upstate New York.

ANTHONY CARDENALES: Fellows, this is the first time that I’m looking at you from this side.

PAUL SOLMAN: When released two years ago, at age 34, he’d spent half his life locked up, with many of the men in this room and the guys who guard them.

ANTHONY CARDENALES: It felt really good walking in this door today and these guys looking at me and their eyes opening up here, you know?

(APPLAUSE)

ANTHONY CARDENALES: So…

PAUL SOLMAN: You can understand the eye-opening. When Cardenales left this place two years ago, his job prospects seemed suboptimal. A job interview would go well, he says, until the inevitable:

ANTHONY CARDENALES: “Oh, I see here you have been convicted of a felony. How long ago?”

“I was convicted in 1992, arrested in 1991.”

“Oh, wow, that’s a long time ago. How long have you been home?”

“Thirty days.”

(LAUGHTER)

PAUL SOLMAN: The cliché is that prisons are schools for scoundrels. But during his time behind bars, Cardenales seems to have become, quite literally, a different man.

If many of us outside could be tipped to violence by extreme circumstance, he appears to have been tipped the other way, by the Bard College prison program. Barely 24 months out of jail, Cardenales is a rising middle manager at an electronics recycling company in Westchester county, New York, making some $80,000 a year. He’s proof that a liberal education in prison, or at least a Bard degree, can pay off.

Moreover, says his boss, he represents a hidden national economic resource just begging to be tapped.

VIRGIL FISHER, WeRecycle: Look, we have got a hidden work force out here. I’m talking about you all.

PAUL SOLMAN: In a job-challenged economy, Virgil Fisher is looking to hire, as the company he runs, WeRecycle, expands. Impressed by the ex-con grads of Bard College’s prison program who already work for him, he’s looking to recruit more of them at Woodbourne. This is the current crop of matriculants.

VIRGIL FISHER: Don’t lose sight about what this is all about. It’s about business. It’s about competing. It’s about — it’s about being able to win in a global economy.

We hear all the time that, when you go to prison, the only thing that you’re learning how to do is to be a better criminal. And we have people who are coming out who are able to run supply chain, who are able to run human resources, who are able to do our settlements for us.

How many people like to win?

PAUL SOLMAN: Fisher isn’t targeting everyone behind bars. Talent inside, he believes, is distributed just like outside: as a bell curve.

VIRGIL FISHER: You’re going to have a group in the middle that is average, and then you’re going to have a group that is below average, and then you’re going to have a group that just rises to the occasion. And that’s typically about 10 percent to 15 percent.

PAUL SOLMAN: Aren’t you skimming the cream of the crop here?

VIRGIL FISHER: Absolutely. What business wouldn’t want to have the best and the brightest?

PAUL SOLMAN: The best and the brightest who no one else is competing to hire.

BILL DOANE, inmate: We’re going out and you’re going to be competing against 21-, 22-year-old kids coming out of college that don’t even have a parking ticket, right?

PAUL SOLMAN: Kid doesn’t even have a parking ticket. If I’m an employer, what do I see on your record?

BILL DOANE: I’m 55 years old. I was in the Marine Corps. I have got a lot of other things going on besides prison, but this is a big part of it, too. I have been here 24 years. And…

PAUL SOLMAN: Why?

BILL DOANE: Why what?

PAUL SOLMAN: Why were you here? What are you here for?

BILL DOANE: I’m convicted for murder.

PAUL SOLMAN: What are you in here for?

MAN: Murder. I was convicted of murder.

MAN: Murder, second-degree.

MAN: Attempt murder.

MAN: Robbery.

MAN: Robbery.

MAN: Attempted burglary.

PAUL SOLMAN: A hard core to work with.

But the Bard program simply sees itself doing what education has always done in America, civilize students for the workplace.

ANTHONY CARDENALES: I will have all the paperwork ready.

MAN: OK.

ANTHONY CARDENALES: All right?

PAUL SOLMAN: Anthony Cardenales is the premier case in point.

A seventh-grade dropout, his early work history was stick-up artist. Eventually, he killed a man. In prison, his behavior wasn’t much better.

ANTHONY CARDENALES: I was convicted of assault.

PAUL SOLMAN: Against another prisoner?

ANTHONY CARDENALES: Against another prisoner. And they put me in solitary confident.

And they brought my daughter. My wife brought my eldest daughter up. She’d been acting out since she was very young. You know, she gets these rage — these bouts of rage, and she acts out violently. So, as I’m talking to my 8-year-old daughter, I’m telling her, look, you can’t be in school, you can’t do this, you know, this is wrong.

PAUL SOLMAN: Meanwhile, you’re in solitary confinement, shackled.

ANTHONY CARDENALES: I was shackled up. And her response to me was, “But, daddy, you do the same thing.”

When she said that to me, it was almost like, you know, she threw a mirror in my face and said, wow.

PAUL SOLMAN: In 2001, Cardenales made the inaugural class of a new college program for convicts run by Bard, an elite liberal arts school in nearby Annandale-on-Hudson. He graduated in 2008.

ANTHONY CARDENALES: The title of my senior project was “Space, Time and Human Resilience.”

PAUL SOLMAN: Any particular authors that influenced you?

ANTHONY CARDENALES: I used Kierkegaard. I used a lot of the existentialist writers. They had that deeper vision and deeper dialogue that made me struggle with it. And then, in struggling with it, it enabled me to tie it into, you know, the everyday experience.

VIRGIL FISHER: Talking about existentialism, and I can’t even pronounce it. I — we get in a lot of philosophical discussions. And you have to sometimes pinch yourself and say, well, how could they be so smart, because they were away for so many years?

PAUL SOLMAN: But a lot of companies would say, I’m running a huge risk by taking the best and the brightest from a prison in upstate New York.

VIRGIL FISHER: But are they any different than the population that is coming out of college? I would say that they have better work ethic. And their work ethic rubs off on the rest of the team.

PAUL SOLMAN: Yet another hidden work force benefit for a small company, says Fisher, that has trouble both competing with blue-chip firms for top talent and finding good workers willing to get down and dirty.

VIRGIL FISHER: We have gotten used to a certain lifestyle and a certain concept of what our job should look like. You take, for example, our jobs that we have downstairs.

The majority of college-degree people wouldn’t do that job even if it meant, within six months, you’re going to move up to a production supervisor and, after about a year, you’re going to move up to a plant manager. I — that’s fast trajectory right there, but it’s that first six months of working as a material handler, and that’s thought to be a menial job.

PAUL SOLMAN: So, you can’t get people to do that?

ANTHONY CARDENALES: Yes, I can. I can get, but it’s not going to be the college-educated persons coming out of a college, a big-name college.

VIRGIL FISHER: Show me what you can do.

PAUL SOLMAN: The grads here have roughly the same credentials, but perhaps a better, some might say more desperate, work ethic.

BENJAMIN WILSON, inmate: When I leave here, I’m not coming back to prison. I have no choice in the matter.

BILL DOANE: I’m going to work harder for you than the next guy, because I have to. You understand? Because…

PAUL SOLMAN: Because the stakes are high.

BILL DOANE: The stakes are very high. I can’t afford to screw up even a little bit. And so I’m going to — I’m going to give you 150 percent, where maybe the kid coming out of college, he might be just using you as a stepping-stone, or he’s looking around, he’s feeling his way around in the world. You see the difference?

ANTHONY CARDENALES: I will do any job. I will clean the floors. I mean, literally, I was putting cable — cable wire up in the rain. I worked 10-, 12-hour days — $200 a week, that’s what I made. No matter how many hours I worked, no matter how many days, $200 a week.

PAUL SOLMAN: How can you live on $200 a week?

ANTHONY CARDENALES: I couldn’t, but how could I live with no money? A few weeks out of that job, I went into an $18-an-hour-paying job. Ninety days after that job, I came into this job.

These are my dreams. I fit in right here, but this is what I’m looking at. This is where I want to be. This is where I can be. This is where I deserve to be. It’s a combination of who you are as a person, the values you hold, the education you have, the application of who you are to the new world, because it is a new world.

I didn’t even know how to use my house phone. Urinals flush without you touching anything.

(LAUGHTER)

ANTHONY CARDENALES: I’m serious. You walk up, use the bathroom, and you walk away and it flushes.

(LAUGHTER)

PAUL SOLMAN: And yet, says Cardenales, if he could get through it, many of them can.

ANTHONY CARDENALES: I mean, right now, my title is manager supply chain. Millions of dollars flow through my hands. I’m responsible for connecting our sourcing team, who gets all our raw material, to our manufacturing team, who produces an end product.

Seriously, bro, we didn’t have one class that prepared me for that.

(LAUGHTER)

ANTHONY CARDENALES: I look at my mentor, who’s the hardest person I have ever worked for — in the illegal realm, in the legal realm — by far, hands down.

(LAUGHTER)

PAUL SOLMAN: For all the credit Cardenales gives boss Virgil Fisher, he was actually hired by the owners of WeRecycle, John and Wendy Neu, NewsHour funders long in the scrap metal business, long committed to doing well by doing good.

You’re a bred-in-the-bone do-gooder, right?

WENDY NEU, WeRecycle: I suppose, yes.

(LAUGHTER)

WENDY NEU: I try.

PAUL SOLMAN: Did they meet your expectations, exceed your expectations?

WENDY NEU: We couldn’t have asked for anything more.

JOHN NEU, WeRecycle: Two of them rank as high as anybody we have ever had working for us.

PAUL SOLMAN: Of all the thousands of people?

JOHN NEU: Of all the thousands.

PAUL SOLMAN: One of those two is Anthony Cardenales. And he sees plenty like him, including his best friend in prison, George Perez, scheduled for parole this fall after serving 12 years for drug dealing and homicide.

GEORGE PEREZ, inmate: If I can apply the same negative energy that I used to do these things, and then revert it and turn it into positive energy, then I can go beyond what any normal person can do, yes, and success will mount.

PAUL SOLMAN: As it happens, when we were around, Cardenales and the founder of the Bard program, Max Kenner, were pitching Virgil Fisher on Perez.

MAX KENNER, Bard Prison Initiative: When he was in school, he was a top student in the college, and Anthony and George and one other student ran the office that ran the whole school.

ANTHONY CARDENALES: He will win the job.

VIRGIL FISHER: OK. You sure?

ANTHONY CARDENALES: The only fear I have is that he doesn’t waste words, and that may be misinterpreted.

VIRGIL FISHER: No, I like — I like him already. I don’t waste words.

(LAUGHTER)

PAUL SOLMAN: And so we conclude this most unusual of economic stories in present-day America, one with a potentially happy ending.

On the other hand, concludes Max Kenner:

MAX KENNER: It’s not a good thing that we find such extraordinary students in a context like this, right? This is a tragedy.

PAUL SOLMAN: A tragedy for America, perhaps, but maybe a godsend for a place like WeRecycle, and for those it gives an actual chance at that former staple of the American economy: upward mobility.