Tuesday, March 8, 2005

He Did Time, So He's Unfit to Do Hair

US: As someone who has done time himself, Marc La Cloche is happy for Martha Stewart.

She has managed to turn life in federal prison into a nifty career move. Her company's stock is soaring, and she has plans for not one but two television shows. It almost makes you wonder why the Enron types are fighting so hard to stay out of jail.

Brava Martha, Mr. La Cloche says. He only wishes that New York State would let him put his own prison experience to decent use. "I wish her the best," he said of Ms. Stewart. "But I think the best is going to come anyway because she's financially sound. She has avenues that one coming from my situation won't have."

That's for sure. The avenues open to Mr. La Cloche, 39 and living in the Bronx, might best be described with Joseph Heller's memorable phrase Catch-22.

Mr. La Cloche served 11 years in New York prisons for first-degree robbery. While behind bars, he turned his life around. He learned a trade, barbering.. He even had the image of a barber's clippers and comb tattooed on his right arm.

In 2000, as he prepared to be freed, he applied for a required state license. He was denied it. But that decision was reversed when reviewed by a hearing officer. For a while after his release, Mr. La Cloche worked in a Midtown barber shop.

That job did not last long.

New York's secretary of state, who has jurisdiction in these matters, appealed the granting of the license and won. Mr. La Cloche's "criminal history," an administrative law judge ruled, "indicates a lack of good moral character and trustworthiness required for licensure."

In plain language, the fact that Mr. La Cloche had been in prison proved that he was unworthy for the trade that the state itself taught him in prison.

Where is Joseph Heller when we need him? That pretty much summed up the feelings of Justice Herman Cahn of State Supreme Court in Manhattan. Two years ago, he ordered the authorities to give Mr. La Cloche another look. They have every right to expect would-be barbers to prove their "good moral character," Justice Cahn said. But Mr. La Cloche never got the chance. His criminal record alone did him in, and that was unfair, the judge said.

So the case went back to an administrative judge. The result was the same, though. Once again, Mr. La Cloche was found to lack the moral character to cut hair for a living. This time, the reason given was his "minimization" of the nature of his crime.

It is tempting to note that Ms. Stewart also minimizes her crime; she insists on her innocence. But she gets a television show or two. Mr. La Cloche has his clippers yanked.

He is now on public assistance, he says, and receives disability payments for a bad hip. Apparently, state officials believe that New Yorkers are better served having a former convict on welfare rather than in a career. One of his plans were he to get a license, Mr. La Cloche said, would be to team with "a bunch of barbers" to cut the hair of young people living in state institutions.

"What I really want is to have this contact with these kids so I can hopefully get to them and change their life around," he said. "I was raised in these institutions. But this barber license is really holding me up."

A spokesman for the secretary of state says the agency's position has not changed. In turn, Mr. La Cloche continues to pursue his license in the state courts, aided by Michele Davila, a lawyer with Neighborhood Defenders Service of Harlem.

HIS case is hardly isolated, said JoAnne Page, executive director of the Fortune Society, a group in Manhattan that helps former inmates. They keep running into "so many barriers to employment," she said.

"The question is how long do you hold that albatross around a person's neck," Ms. Page said. "We're seeing a tightening of the neck because it's so easy now to check records. We're also seeing - some of it is post-9/11 - a greater rigidity about giving people that second chance to rebuild."

It is one thing to prevent, say, a child molester from driving a school bus, she said. But to keep a convicted robber from cutting hair? The authorities, she pointed out, trusted Mr. La Cloche enough to wield sharp instruments in a maximum-security prison.

Of course, Mr. La Cloche can always look on the bright side. Unable as he is to ply his trade, he will have more time now to catch Martha Stewart on television.

By CLYDE HABERMAN posted 8 March 05


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