Episode 5: Con Jobs: From Inmate to Entrepreneur (with Catherine Hoke)
Preet Bharara: Welcome to the show, Catherine Hoke, also known as Cat to your friends, yes?
Catherine Hoke: Yes.
Preet Bharara: So.
Catherine Hoke: Thank you, sir.
Preet Bharara: It’s good to have you. I can never figure out if it’s Catherine or Cat.
Catherine Hoke: Both work.
Preet Bharara: So, you had a birthday recently.
Catherine Hoke: Yes.
Preet Bharara: Where’d you spend your birthday?
Catherine Hoke: I spent my 40th birthday at Pelican Bay State Prison. It’s my favorite place in the world.
Preet Bharara: So, you know, I prosecuted people for much of my—most of my adult professional life. It is very rare that I hear someone say that. So, could you explain what on earth you’re talking about?
Catherine Hoke: Sure. I’m the founder and CEO of Defy Ventures, D-E-F-Y, like defying the odds. We work with men, women, and youth who have criminal histories. They’re serving their time. We run a rehabilitation program that transforms their hustle and prepares them for a successful release after they get out. When they get out of prison, we help place them in jobs. We have a mentoring program, and we incubate and finance successful businesses started by people who have criminal histories.
I spent my 40th birthday at Pelican Bay State Prison. It’s my favorite place in the world.
Preet Bharara: Well, I’m gonna get—we have a lot to talk about.
Catherine Hoke: Okay.
Preet Bharara: With respect to your work, which people might be surprised to learn that I’m not only a fan of and an admirer of, but also a participant in, in my new life. But first of all, I want to get back to your birthday. So, you go to prison.
Catherine Hoke: Yeah.
Preet Bharara: For the whole day?
Catherine Hoke: It was a two-day event. We had almost 100 CEOs and venture capitalists who flew out for the two-day event that was—
Preet Bharara: For your birthday.
Catherine Hoke: For my birthday.
Preet Bharara: Did you have cake?
Catherine Hoke: I mean, my birthday was one day.
Preet Bharara: Did you have cake?
Catherine Hoke: We had cake. We even had a band.
Preet Bharara: What kind of band did you have?
Catherine Hoke: It was like an ‘80s cover band. It was the first band concert they’d ever had at Pelican Bay.
Preet Bharara: Wow. Where is Pelican Bay?
Catherine Hoke: It’s at the Oregon border of California.
Preet Bharara: So, let’s take a step back. You did not begin your professional life and career caring about people in prison. You began your professional life and career as a Wall Street person, right?
Catherine Hoke: Right.
Preet Bharara: What were you doing?
Catherine Hoke: I used to work in venture capital, and then I worked in New York City for a private equity firm. And I used to think that anyone who was incarcerated was the scum of the earth, as far as I was concerned. When I was 12, a good friend of mine was brutally murdered by two 16-year-old boys, and I just assumed that everybody in prison could rot and die in that place. When I was 26, so 14 year ago, I was invited by a JPMorgan executive on a trip to a Texas prison. And when she invited me, my first reaction was, um, no thanks. I have better things to do with my time. I’d never been to Texas, where the prison visit was that she was going on. And I had no interest in, I mean, going to prison period.
Preet Bharara: So why’d you go?
Catherine Hoke: When she started speaking with me about the people that she has met in prison, she talked about how not everyone in prison wants a second chance, but so many of them do. And they don’t even know what it looks like. And as she spoke about the people that she has met in prison, I could start to feel my heart buzzing. I was looking for my calling and purpose in life. I was very good at doing deals. I’m a salesperson. I used to sell Cutco knives back in the day. I was able to rope in deal flow very effectively for my firms. But I could see that so many of the successful partners that I worked with were still not that fulfilled in their lives. And so, I was like, what’s the end game? I’m a big picture person. I like to know what the goal is. Is dying with the biggest pile of money—is that it?
Preet Bharara: I’ve talked to, as you might imagine, a lot of people who are in the business of rehabilitation and moving people who were incarcerated into society. And I don’t hear many of them speak in terms like, “I could rope in a lot of deal flow.” So, you have an unusual background to have done this. So, you go to the prison.
Catherine Hoke: Mm-hmm.
Preet Bharara: And what happens to you?
Catherine Hoke: It changed everything for me. So, when I went there, I showed up with very strong judgments and a lot of fear, frankly.
Preet Bharara: You were skeptical.
Catherine Hoke: Yeah. Super skeptical on everything. But as I started to speak with the men and women that I met—I was even—I went to death row to visit with people—I realized two things. One is, as I started to realize how they were raised, had I been raised in many of those circumstances, I’m not so sure that I would have had a different outcome either. I’m not making excuses. I never make excuses for the bad choices that they made, but I understood how they could have landed there. The first person that I met on my first prison visit, his name was Johnny Taylor. When Johnny was eight, he watched as his grandfather murdered his father right in front of him. And by the age of 11, he was jumped into a gang, and by the age of 18, he was incarcerated. And unfortunately, these trends, these stories are all too common. So, Johnny could have made other decisions, but at the same time, I understand the choices that he made. And now what? We Americans, we like to say that America’s the land of second chances. We don’t act that way often enough. The other thing that I realized on that very first prison visit, having been raised as a white girl in a middleclass family, I knew nothing about drug rings or gangs. And when I spoke with the people that I met on that first visit, I realized that so many former drug dealers and gang leaders share a lot in common with successful CEOs.
Preet Bharara: Do you mean that as a compliment, or do you mean that as something different?
Catherine Hoke: Just observing a fact, that many of them are hustlers. They know how to manage a team. Many of our people in prison understand a proprietary sales strategy. Some of them had way better profit margins than the CEOs that I was trying to work with in venture capital. And—
Preet Bharara: But they also paid fewer taxes.
Catherine Hoke: They paid fewer—a lot fewer taxes.
Preet Bharara: So, a lot less—in my experience, a lot less reported income.
Catherine Hoke: The one thing that they were not so good at, the people I serve, was their risk management strategies, because they all got busted and ended up behind bars.
Preet Bharara: And also, the compliance program, probably lacking. Money laundering, compliance, not so good. In my experience also as a prosecutor, there are some incredibly sophisticated criminal organizations—
Catherine Hoke: Yeah.
I realized that so many former drug dealers and gang leaders share a lot in common with successful CEOs.
Preet Bharara: That understand leadership, you know, for a bad purpose and a bad cause. So, I hear what you’re saying. But not many people then think about figuring out ways to capitalize on that to help them.
Catherine Hoke: Right.
Preet Bharara: What made you think of that?
Catherine Hoke: Well, when I realized that many of these sophisticated organizations are run by boards of directors, and they have accountants and bookkeepers, I just said, what are you doing with all this potential? I realize that you grew up in these circumstances where you weren’t around doctors, lawyers, investment bankers, and legal entrepreneurs. But what would happen if you were equipped to go legit with your skillset? And I said, I get it that you have been selling drugs for most of your life. But what would it be like if you built something as simple as a landscaping company and built up a landscaping empire? And you don’t have to push a lawnmower around yourself. You can hire everyone that you know to go pass them out. But then for the first time, you wouldn’t have your life on the line anymore, and you wouldn’t have another prison term hanging over your head. How does that sound?
Preet Bharara: But so—but you’re saying this, and you’re a white Canadian woman who’s a venture capitalist. Are they saying, who is this crazy lady—
Catherine Hoke: Yes.
Preet Bharara: Who thinks she has something to teach us? Or are they intrigued by it? How did you bridge what I’m sure was some gap—
Catherine Hoke: Yeah.
Preet Bharara: Between your experience?
Catherine Hoke: So, first, I don’t think they’re that different from me. But it took me a while to learn that as well. So, when I started, I had no idea what I was doing. But they were so eager. I mean, these guys have been locked up for ten or 20 years. No one comes in there to tell them that they believe in them. And here I am at 26, saying, “I believe in you. You can do it.” I grew up with a Hungarian Yugoslav immigrant father who believed in the American dream, that anyone can make it. So I said, yeah, when you commit a crime, they can take away a lot of your rights, but no one can take away the right for you to start a business. And maybe people won’t want to hire you when you get out of here, but you can still make it. And so, transform that hustle. And today, now that I’m a lot less naive and know that many of them are not angels, and that they don’t necessarily show up with the purest of motivations at that first kickoff, I tell them, look, if you like serving time—if you’re not sick and tired, get out. Because we’re about to get weird. You’re about to do things that you haven’t done before, not because I can make you do things because you’re incarcerated, but because I’ve seen this work over and over and over again. But you have to be up for some change. And if you’re not, get out. Because this is not the make a million dollars in your first year out of prison program.
Preet Bharara: So, just some backstory for the listeners between you and me. You tried to get a meeting with me when I was a United States attorney, I think for a long time, for months.
Catherine Hoke: Yeah, I tried pretty hard.
Preet Bharara: And we were busy in the office, and the principal bread and butter work of a prosecutor’s office is to hold people accountable. But there are a lot of things that I had going on all the time, and I think I blew off your entreaties for a meeting time and time and time again. And I think ultimately, we set a meeting. I think I said 15 minutes max.
Catherine Hoke: I think I got ten.
Preet Bharara: And we went an hour-and-a-half.
Catherine Hoke: Yeah.
Preet Bharara: Unexpectedly. And I think other things got delayed—was because I was so taken by the approach that you had, which was different from what I had heard other people talking about. You were talking about using tools of entrepreneurship and, you know, to be blunt about it, capitalism and business skills to help improve people’s lives who had been incarcerated for a long period of time. I had never heard that before. And when I stopped being the U.S. attorney because of this firing thing that happened, I agreed to join the executive council of Defy Ventures—I want people to know that—along with, among other people, Sheryl Sandberg, who also believed in this work. And I just want to say that I think it’s important in America that prosecutors do care about prisoners. That even though the job of the prosecutor is mostly to do these other things, we can’t forget about what happens once people go to prison. And if we want recidivism to go down, and if we want public safety to go up, we can’t just forget about people once the guilty verdict is in and the sentencing is imposed by the judge. So, I endorsed the work for that reason.
Catherine Hoke: And thank you. And I’m really grateful to have you involved. And some people ask me why I pursue the other side. A lot of people see this world as us against them.
Preet Bharara: And the “them” is me.
Catherine Hoke: And whoever “us” and “them” are—well, yeah. And if I’m for people who are incarcerated, they would think that maybe I would not be also for people who are in law enforcement or people who bring justice, but I’m for justice. That’s why we’re here right now. That’s why we’re both here, because we both know that it’s not just about punishment. It’s not just about lock them up and throw away the key. 95 percent of people who are incarcerated come home to society. And so, who do we want coming back?
Preet Bharara: So, I went with you along with my brother and along with the deputy United States attorney.
Catherine Hoke: And along with like a hundred cops who were swarming around you. I’d never seen a scene like that before.
Preet Bharara: I tried to come to Rikers Island. This was on, I think, December 8th of last year. It actually also happens to be the day, if you’ve been following the podcast, that the president elect called me and left a message in my office, which was another weird thing—which was more weird, by the way, than dealing with prisoners and giving them hugs at Rikers Island while I was the sitting United States attorney, which was not to be for that long. And I brought a bunch of folks. And I thought it would be a low-key thing, but obviously, there was concern for, I suppose, my safety, which they didn’t have to be concerned about. And my brother and I and others literally sat there at a table, and you called up person after person who was incarcerated there to pitch us on their business ideas.
Catherine Hoke: Yeah. So, we have pitch competitions. We’ve rolled out Defy in nearly 30 facilities across the country. And we bring in extremely successful CEOs and VCs who hear their pitches and give them feedback. And—
Preet Bharara: By VCs, you mean venture capitalists.
Catherine Hoke: Yes, sorry. If they win, they get an IOU so that after they get out of prison and are admitted into our entrepreneurship incubator, then they can cash out the check. And we provide them with startup funding to start legal businesses. And we are very competitive at Defy. They start with the quarter finals, the semi-finals, and then the finals.
Preet Bharara: This is not a game, right? These people are actually—
Catherine Hoke: It’s not a game. They really want to win.
Preet Bharara: They’re pitching for real money.
Catherine Hoke: Yeah.
Preet Bharara: In real—in the real world after they get out.
Catherine Hoke: Yeah. So, in New York City, a couple times a year, we have an actual Shark Tank style pitch competition of our own. The first place prize is $15,000.00. We have graduates who proceed through the competition, and then if they do well, we can also introduce them to angel investors who can provide further equity investments in their businesses. Our most successful graduate, his name is Coss Marte, and he was the founder of ConBody that is here in New York City.
Preet Bharara: ConBody, C-O-N?
Catherine Hoke: C-O-N Body.
Preet Bharara: As in—
Catherine Hoke: It’s a prison style fitness boot camp.
Preet Bharara: Con as in convict.
Catherine Hoke: Exactly, yes. I don’t like that word myself. I say we are all ex-somethings, so I don’t call anyone cons myself.
Preet Bharara: Right.
Catherine Hoke: But he does.
Preet Bharara: But he put that on his gym.
Catherine Hoke: So, he has a ConBody inside Saks 5th Avenue.
Preet Bharara: Really?
Catherine Hoke: Yes. He has served 14,000 customers. He has like an 80 percent retention rate for his customers. We’ve helped him to raise $250,000.00. He has hired 15 people with criminal histories, and he now has an online platform for ConBody Live that has served people in 22 countries. He has customers in all those countries. But what I love most about Coss, he did five years in prison in New York State. And he started to change his life when he was in the SHU, in solitary confinement. He was really—
Preet Bharara: The SHU is Special Housing Unit?
Catherine Hoke: It goes by Security Housing Unit. It has different names all over the place. But it’s where you go when you get in trouble when you’re already locked up.
Preet Bharara: What caused you to think that you should believe in him and that he might be able to launch a successful business?
Catherine Hoke: When he showed up to the classes, he sat in the front row. He was on time. He was dressed in a suit and tie. He is the hustler of hustlers. Coss used to run a—
Preet Bharara: But now in a good way.
Catherine Hoke: Yeah.
Preet Bharara: Okay.
Catherine Hoke: Yeah. Transformed that hustle. But you can’t take the hustle out of the hustler. You can’t. And almost any warden will tell you that their prison cells are filled with hustlers who are always selling something. You can get pretty much anything you want in prison. Coss used to be that guy. He ran a two-million-dollar-a-year drug ring in New York City before going to prison. He went to prison at 19. And then he realized that through his drug empire, he was destroying lives. And he decided that he wanted to go legit. And he had this idea, but ideas are a dime a dozen. They don’t go anywhere unless you can get financing, unless you can get access. And that’s what Defy provides to people. We give people who don’t normally have access—we provide them with access. We vet them.
Preet Bharara: So, I believe in the power of redemption. I believe in the power of rehabilitation. But I also believe there are some people who are not redeemable. And I also believe there are some people who say they’re on the road to mending, but they’re still gonna victimize people. And there’s a concern about that. Do you have to convince yourself that something has changed with respect to not the hustle, because everyone hustles in the world, businesspeople and otherwise, but that he had made a change in his life, that he wasn’t gonna harm people or engage in activity that was destructive?
Catherine Hoke: The people that we serve, a requirement is that they take ownership of their past. And if they don’t take ownership, then we’re not interested. I believe that all things can be redeemed. And I have worked with people who have committed very heinous crimes. All I can say is that every time that we gave Coss any opportunity or any assignment or responsibility, he took full responsibility, and he turned everything that he was provided with into gold. So, they don’t get $15,000.00 in their first Shark Tank competition. If they win the first one, they get $500.00. And then we see what they do with the $500.00. That’s for the first place. We look for receipts. We look for bank statements. We look for all their activity. Defy is a really tough program. It’s 200 courses. Some of them are taught by Harvard and Stanford MBA professors. Did they get their assignments in on time? Are they meeting with their executive mentor? So, we’re so high on accountability. And a guy who’s a fraud is probably not gonna follow through and be accountable, or he’s gonna fail a drug test, or he’s—
Preet Bharara: Right. So, there are a lot of measurements along the way.
Catherine Hoke: Yeah.
Preet Bharara: Is it hard for some of these guys who have criminal records to get people to take advantage of their services?
Catherine Hoke: So, part of the beauty of entrepreneurship is that usually, your customers don’t say, “Do you have a criminal history?” By contrast, many employers will ask if you have a criminal history. Or maybe they don’t ask; they just run a background check, and then they throw your resume out. In New York, with Ban the Box, an employer’s not legally allowed to ask about a criminal history upfront, but they can run the background check.
Preet Bharara: Right.
Catherine Hoke: And people discriminate all the time. We have a woman that we serve named Shelly Winner. She came out of a federal prison. She did two years on a drug dealing charge. And when she got out, she didn’t have any type of technology background, but she really wanted to get into tech. We got her an executive mentor who helped her. And Shelly landed an interview at Microsoft. She’s very charismatic. And she ended up getting a job offer. After they ran her background check, they attempted to rescind the offer, and we let our EITs—that stands for entrepreneurs in training. That’s what we call our people—we inform our EITs of their rights. And she let them know that discriminating against her because she has a criminal history that is unrelated to the sales work that she would be doing at Microsoft is not legal. I’m proud to say that Shelly has now been recognized twice as an MVP on her sales team at Microsoft. She has been commended and promoted because she’s adding so much value. I think people discriminate out of fear.
Preet Bharara: In your experience, who are the kinds of criminals who you think are the easiest to work with versus the hardest to work with?
Catherine Hoke: I don’t love stereotypes. But in general at Defy, the people that we serve now average nearly 20 years in prison. You usually don’t get 20 years in prison unless you have committed a violent crime. I have never had anyone who committed the crime of murder ever go back to jail or prison ever again. They are our most successful category. And sometimes, people are like, wow. But not to take too much credit away from Defy Ventures, but murderers actually have one of the lowest recidivism rates of all crimes in the country, period. People are terrified of people who commit murder, because you’re thinking about the psychopath who’s creeping on the white woman’s porch and then kills her in the shower. I’ve never met one of those. The people that I work with were 15 years old when they exchanged gunfire with a rival gang member. They grew up with gang turf. Again, I don’t make excuses for what they do, but they weren’t killing random victims. They were engaged in a war
Preet Bharara: And who are the kinds of folks that you find it most frustrating to deal with and who don’t rehabilitate as well?
Catherine Hoke: Overall, I would say we’ve had the hardest time with people who have committed white collar crime, crimes especially that involve deception with money. And I believe the reason for that is that when you’re deceiving people and you have a lifetime pattern of lying to make yourself look good, sometimes it’s harder to take ownership of your past. So, I hear a lot of times, I was framed. I didn’t do it. And there can be, especially when people have achieved a lot of success—by the way, this is like one percent of the people that we serve at Defy that I’m describing right now. But if you’ve had a lot of financial success, and like, if you’re a Wall Street guy–If you’re one of your guys, Preet–when you’ve had a lot of success, and that greed and that pride of always looking awesome, it can be harder to take ownership of your past. Versus my people, who know that they have made a grave mistake. If you’ve always been an angel and have never done anything wrong in your life, then I don’t know.. We don’t have anything to talk about.
Preet Bharara: But there’s another problem: pride.
Catherine Hoke: Yeah.
I have never had anyone who committed the crime of murder ever go back to jail or prison ever again. They are our most successful category.
Preet Bharara: So, some of these folks who have been incarcerated, many of them—most of them are men.
Catherine Hoke: Mm-hmm.
Preet Bharara: Committed violent crimes. And part of their ability to transform themselves and come back into society is limited by pride about things that they don’t know. And you don’t want to be made fun of.
Catherine Hoke: Yeah.
Preet Bharara: I’ve heard you describe the example of somebody who may have been the head of a gang, but now they’re out and they want to be legitimate. And they literally don’t want to be humiliated by walking into a bank and not—because they’ve never written an actual check. On the day that someone gets out of prison, what’s a simple impediment to making a decent living after that?
Catherine Hoke: You can’t even get a state ID. I don’t know why prison systems don’t let you exit with a state ID. You walk out with your offender ID. And if you try to cash your $200.00 check at a bank…I’ve seen cases where bank tellers get nervous and have had a few of our guys get arrested for showing their offender ID to cash their prison check. People automatically assume it says—when it says offender at the top of it, they think it means sex offender. People are freaked out. If you have been locked up for 20 years, you might not know how to get your ID. You might not be able to find your Social Security card, your birth certificate, all the documents that you need to get a regular government ID that will help you to get employed.
Preet Bharara: Right. I mean, it’s impossible—
Catherine Hoke: That process can take eight weeks. You can’t get a job without a state ID. I’m not even talking a driver’s license. Why don’t we release people—I think it would cost states $12 to give them a state government ID. I mean, we know their identity when they’re locked up.
Preet Bharara: Yeah, we hope so.
Catherine Hoke: And if they were able to come out with a state ID, that would actually allow them to get into a job instead of waiting for eight weeks. What are they supposed to do and how are they supposed to survive? So, you get out of prison. A lot of them don’t have family members that can take them back into their communities, or that you’re told you can’t go live in the community that you came from because of your crime. And so, you don’t have anywhere to live. You have maybe 200 bucks, but then you have to spend sometimes $100 of it on your bus ticket back home. There is no home. And then you can’t get a job. So, we’re setting people up for failure.
If we don’t equip our returning citizens to be successful, we’re just gonna continue the mass incarceration crisis that is plaguing our country.
Preet Bharara: So, states have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to incarcerate a lot of people.
Catherine Hoke: Yeah. In California, we spend $75,000 to lock up one person for one year.
Preet Bharara: And then not giving them one of the most simple and important tools that costs 12 bucks, which is an ID, on the day they get let back into society.
Catherine Hoke: Yeah.
Preet Bharara: And that’s true in most states.
Catherine Hoke: There are so many very simple things that we could do to equip people when they’re getting out of prison. But you know what? It’s not very popular for a politician to say, “I want to earmark some funds for rehabilitation,” or $12 for an ID. If we don’t equip our returning citizens to be successful, we’re just gonna continue the mass incarceration crisis that is plaguing our country. 76.6 percent of people are rearrested within five years. If you want people to come home and actually stay out of prison and stop committing crimes, we have to give them a viable alternative. And I get excited whenever I see a politicians, a prosecutor, anybody else who understands that this is not about tough on crime or being too easy on crime. This is about being smart on crime.
Preet Bharara: You spend a lot of time talking about how people on the outside are not all that different from people on the inside. And that comes as a surprise to some folks. It came as a surprise to me when you started to talk about it. And you do this exercise in the prisons, and I experienced it at Rikers Island, called Step to the Line. Why don’t you describe what Step to the Line is?
Catherine Hoke: So, it’s very easy for those of us who don’t have a criminal history to think that we are so different than them, people who are behind bars. And of course, there’s fear about it, but there’s a lot of judgment, too. By the age of 23, 30 percent of people in our country already have a criminal history. So, I like to ask our volunteers, how many of you have done something really, really stupid by the age of 23? How many of you maybe did something illegal by the age of 23? So, Preet, I’m asking you right now, have you ever—
Preet Bharara: I’ve never done anything stupid in my life.
Catherine Hoke: That’s what I thought.
Preet Bharara: Other than—now look, obviously. Of course, of course.
Catherine Hoke: I mean, who hasn’t gotten in a car after drinking one too many at some point in their college life?
Preet Bharara: You know we’re on the air, so I’m admitting nothing. But yeah, everyone has. And this exercise you have, stepping to the line, where you have this sort of—the free folks on the one side and the incarcerated folks on the other side. And you ask questions like, if you have had someone in your family murdered, step to the line.
Catherine Hoke: Yeah.
Preet Bharara: And when you do that, what happens?
Catherine Hoke: Half of our guys are at the line, and none of our volunteers are at the line. Step to the line if you heard gunshots in your neighborhood growing up. All of our entrepreneurs in training, EITs, the incarcerated people, 80 percent of them are at the line. What we’re doing is we’re creating empathy amongst people. But when we ask, step to the line if you’ve done something that you could have been arrested for but did not get arrested, all of our volunteers are at the line. And just to put you out there, I think that you were at the line as well.
Preet Bharara: We’re gonna be editing that out. That’s gonna be edited, Henry. Take that out of the final.
Catherine Hoke: Okay. Sorry.
Preet Bharara: I want to ask you about second chances. You talk about second chances all the time. That’s the motivating philosophy of all this great work that you do. And this may be difficult to talk about, but you yourself have redeemed yourself in connection with this work. Want to tell us what that’s about?
Catherine Hoke: Sure. So, I am a big advocate for second chances because I got a second chance. Most of the people that I advocate for, I believe Defy is their first legitimate chance. But because I was the beneficiary of people who believed in me after I screwed up very publicly, I have devoted my life to this work. So, I used to work in venture capital and private equity. At 26, was invited on the prison visit. I started my first program in Texas called Prison Entrepreneurship Program that is still running in Texas today with extreme success rates. Less than seven percent recidivism. 14 years later, 98 percent employment rate. And then after five years of building up this organization, that’s when I screwed up. I had been married for nine years. I never thought I would be a divorced woman. I was handed divorce papers. My divorce came to me unexpectedly, and I handled myself very poorly in the wake of my divorce. I ended up having some relationships with people who had gotten out of prison. After my divorce, I didn’t exactly want to send a press release to people. I was drowning in my own shame. The people who moved me out of my house, picked me up from—I got sick, and I had to be in the hospital. I didn’t know who to confide in. The people that I confided in had been graduates of my program.
Preet Bharara: People who had been in prison.
Catherine Hoke: Yeah. So, they were out of prison. What I did was not illegal. But it was a really bad decision, and I knew that, and I take full ownership of it. And I was honest about my mistakes. I knew the Texas prison system would not appreciate it if they heard about it. And when I was asked, “Did you do that?” I said, “Yes,” and they forced my resignation very publicly in the media. It went out across national news. When I saw what people were writing about me, they were making up more juicy details that were not even true. I was not allowed to return to the Texas prison system, and I was forced to resign from my own organization.
Preet Bharara: Does that remain true today?
Catherine Hoke: Yeah. Well, I’m still not allowed back. I don’t know. I don’t know if they’d ever allow me back in the Texas prison system. I actually would be honored to have the opportunity for Defy to serve in the Texas prison system, even if I can’t personally step foot in there again. I thought no warden would ever let me back in again, and I sure am glad that I was wrong, because we have a nice long waitlist now of prison systems that want us back. But at the time, this was eight years ago, I thought I was so disgusting. I hated my guts. I couldn’t believe the shortsighted, stupid decisions that I had made, because I knew that my decisions could end up costing me everything. But I was so down on myself that I just did things I knew I shouldn’t have done.
Preet Bharara: And how’d you get over that?
Catherine Hoke: I went through a year of very intensive therapy. I’ve been through more than one year of therapy, though, in my life. And I sent a full disclosure letter to—we had 7,500 supporters with the Texas program, and I told them what I did, the mistakes that I made, and I got a thousand emails of love and support and “what are you doing next?” within a day. I couldn’t believe it. But people said, you’ve always preached grace and second chances. What are you doing next? And I didn’t have a plan B. I didn’t know what was next. After taking a year to look inside and get my life together, and get to the other side of my own shame that I felt about myself, and move back to New York, I got an offer to go back into venture capital. But the minute that I got that offer in hand, I felt like a sellout. I know why God has put me on earth. I know what my purpose and calling is, and although I made some really bad decisions, I also know what makes me feel most alive. I didn’t want to be alive anymore, eight years ago, after what I did and today I’m very proud of what our staff has built. Today we have 56 staff members, we have these 4,400 executives who have had our back. When you, Preet, said “yes” to believe in me – it means a lot. It means a lot not just to have you believe in me. But when you have met the people we serve and you also stand for justice it means so much. I wish a lot more prosecutors out there were like you.
Preet Bharara: Look, I’ve found—I think that the work that you do is incredibly inspiring. And we were gonna do more work together in that other official capacity if I had remained as the United States attorney. And the first talk I gave as a distinguished scholar in residence at NYU was on this issue of how we get people from prison back into society. And it’s something that I think prosecutors—I didn’t care about enough the first few years I was in office. I think I began to think about it a lot more—it became more real to me when we started investigating the disaster and the tragic circumstances that the people at Rikers live under. And then meeting you and understanding that work that you do and the hope that you provide to so many people is one of the most inspiring things that I’ve found. So, continue to do it, and other people who want to help should seek you out, like so many people have. Thanks for the work you do.
Catherine Hoke: Thank you for having me.
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