What an ice cream shop in New York City shows about the need for criminal justice reform

Mikey Cole experienced our broken criminal justice system. He knows Hillary will fix it.

What an ice cream shop in New York City shows about the need for criminal justice reform

Mikey Cole experienced our broken criminal justice system. He knows Hillary will fix it.

More than 650,000 people are released from prison every year. Many of these people have an incredibly difficult time getting back on their feet: Surveys show 60 percent of former prisoners experience long-term unemployment. Hillary has a plan to reform the criminal justice system, end the era of mass incarceration, and give people who have served time a second chance—people like Mikey Cole.

—–

Just a few blocks away from the New York City projects he grew up in, Mikey Cole serves customers while bragging on the sixth grader who has just walked into his ice cream shop, Mikey Likes It.

What an ice cream shop in New York City shows about the need for criminal justice reform

“This little man is a genius!” Mikey says, gesturing with his ice cream scoop as the student’s mother stands in the doorway, smiling. “Tell them what you want to be when you grow up!”

“A nuclear astrophysicist,” the kid says, proudly. “I just started at a new school.”

Everyone who comes into Mikey Likes It is greeted like an old friend by Mikey, the owner, who works behind the counter whenever he gets the chance. He interrogates one young man about whether he’s staying out of trouble in school. “I’ve heard some stories,” Mikey tells him. He gives another a high-five when he tells Mikey he’s got straight As in school.

“You know if you keep those up, you can bring your report card here at the end of the year and get some free ice cream, right?” Mikey asks. The young man nods, telling Mikey he’ll be back for a free scoop. “That’s what I like to hear!”

Mikey Cole never planned on being an ice cream man. But when he was arrested, his entire life changed.

“I spent six months in Rikers,” he says, referring to New York City’s massive prison complex on Rikers Island. “Marijuana possession with intent to sell. It was a dark time in my life. I’m not proud of it.”

When Mikey was released—“on good behavior, with eight years probation,” he adds, smiling—he had a difficult time getting back on his feet.

“I couldn’t get a job. Every job application has this little box that you have to check if you’ve ever been incarcerated. And I know when I check that box, that’s it. I’m not getting that job. One day I stopped and said, ‘why don’t I just start my own business and do this on my own?’”

Mikey was one of the millions of former prisoners who are closed off from opportunities by “the box.”

What an ice cream shop in New York City shows about the need for criminal justice reform

When former prisoners try to re-enter the job market, many discover a new hurdle: Job applications will often require them to check a box disclosing that they have criminal record. And sometimes, job applicants that check that box are automatically written off by employers.

“The box” creates a huge barrier to reentry for former prisoners—and not just because of the effect it has on employment: the box appears on many housing applications, too, making it difficult for some former inmates to even find a place to live.

For the African American community, who face being held back because of racial discrimination in the job market, barriers like “the box” can have devastating consequences.

The unemployment rate for African Americans is double the rate for white Americans—and has been for quite some time. And an African American college graduate without a criminal record has the same employment prospects as a white high-school dropout, or a white person with a prison record, according to a 2014 study by the Young Invincibles, a nonpartisan education and economic opportunity advocacy group.

And even though African Americans make up about 13 percent of the U.S. population, 37 percent of the male prison population is black and black women are incarcerated at twice the rate of white women.

That means black men like Mikey, who live at the intersection of being both African American and formerly incarcerated, are at a steep disadvantage when seeking employment.

Eventually, Mikey became so fed up with being turned down for job after job that he decided to go around it–by starting his own business.

After discovering a family recipe for vanilla ice cream, Mikey handed out samples to his friends and neighbors. When they told him that the ice cream was good—really good—he decided to start selling it out of his apartment. It was an instant success, and before long, Mikey didn’t have to worry about being turned down for jobs.

What an ice cream shop in New York City shows about the need for criminal justice reform

Mikey Likes It has been incredibly successful. But Mikey’s story is far from the norm. Because of the many barriers they face, such as housing and employment discrimination, many former prisoners have an extremely difficult time transitioning back to their lives. Mikey wants to use his business to help people who find themselves in the same position he was once in.

“I want to put Mikey Likes It in prison towns and work with the system and the halfway houses so that, while people are getting rehabilitated, they can work in my ice cream shops. That way, when they go home, they’ve got something on their resume, so that little box doesn’t hold them back so much.”

But Mikey knows that even though he can help some people, he can’t fix our broken criminal justice system alone—that’s why he’s supporting Hillary Clinton.

What an ice cream shop in New York City shows about the need for criminal justice reform

Hillary is committed to breaking down barriers for every American, and has proposed policies to make sure former prisoners are given the second chance they deserve. Her criminal justice reform agenda includes “banning the box,” so that people applying for jobs with the federal government and federal contractors will be able to demonstrate their qualifications before they’re asked about their records, and creating initiatives that help former prisoners get back on their feet once they’re released.

Mikey believes that Hillary has the best, most comprehensive plan to help people like him return to their lives after being released from prison.

“Talking about the issues that get to people once they’re out, to me, shows that she really understands it. She gets that we have to make sure people are able to live productive lives once they’re released,” Mikey says. “That’s huge.”

Hillary’s plan also addresses the issues former prisoners face that aren’t talked about often, such as state laws that prohibit former prisoners from voting.

“She’s been speaking out about giving the right to vote back to us, and that’s so important to me. It’s not something you see people talk about often.”

Mikey wanted to do something to support Hillary, so—in true Mikey Cole fashion―he created an ice cream sundae just for her: The Mac Daddy Victory.

What an ice cream shop in New York City shows about the need for criminal justice reform

Mikey’s tribute to Hillary is a twist on his classic “Mac Daddy” sundae: Chocolate ice cream, chocolate chips, and chocolate marshmallows, sandwiched between two chocolate waffles (with crushed Oreos mixed into the waffle batter), topped with chocolate whipped cream and a chocolate drizzle and finished with a chocolate-covered cherry.

He plans to spend the next year advertising the Mac Daddy Victory as a way to get out the vote for Hillary, and believes advertising the sundae will give him an opportunity to tell his customers how Hillary will break down barriers in for people in his community. He hopes that one day, he will be able to join them at polls again.

“Maybe I’ll get to re-elect President Hillary in 2020, right?” Mikey says with a smile, as he serves up one of his ice cream sandwiches to a regular.

Share this article: