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Starting The "Uber Of Prison Visits"

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Calvin Buari

At 5:30 a.m. on a Friday in April, Calvin Buari pulls up to a New York City apartment building in Bronx. The back door of his Toyota Sienna slides open. Two women jump in, and Buari drives north to catch the Taconic State Parkway. In less than two hours, the minivan will park in front of the giant concrete walls of Green Haven Correctional Facility, where the women will visit their husbands and sons who are serving time.

Buari is the founder of Ryderz Van Service, which he describes as the "Uber of prison visits." He is actually far more familiar with prison than with Uber. Buari spent 22 years at Green Haven for a double murder he always said he did not commit. Last May, he walked out of the Stormville, New York, facility a free man, after a judge vacated his conviction.  

The experience would probably make the average person angry - and Buari, 47, admits the first few years inside were hazed over with enmity. But being in prison also honed his skills as an entrepreneur. A one-time notorious crack dealer, Buari plans to use his innate business skills for more legitimate purposes. Last year, he started Ryderz Van Service with his girlfriend's car; the business now has three cars, two full-time drivers (Buari and his girlfriend, Chi), and two freelance drivers. He envisions the startup blooming into an app-based transportation company that shuttles family members of inmates to all 52 correctional facilities in New York State.

"Prison is so ingrained in our society," says Buari, who wears a black fedora and diamond studs in his ears, "that it will never go out of business."

The Path of Redemption

In the early 1990s, Buari was a well-known crack dealer in Bronx. He owned two BMWs and ran a crew that controlled the corner of 213th Street and Bronxwood Avenue. He was making real money, wore Jordans, and had two mink coats, with a mink hat to match. Then, in 1992, a disgruntled associate who had recently shot Buari in an attempt to take over the corner implicated him in the murder of two brothers and turned state's witness for the Bronx district attorney. (In 2005, Dwight Robinson, Buari's associate, confessed to murdering the brothers and framing Buari.) At the time, the press reported that Buari practiced "black magic" and was a murderous thug. Buari was convicted and received 50 years to life in 1995.

But Buari never stopped fighting for his freedom, and journalist Steve Fishman followed his story for seven years. Fishman, in the podcast Empire on Blood, chronicles Buari's journey for justice. Eyewitnesses, first interviewed by Fishman, testified in court in 2015 that Buari was not the murderer, and by May 2017 the judge had vacated the conviction.

Just less than a year after walking out of Green Haven, Buari, now a free man, is driving the Sienna up the windy highway upstate. The three women inside, Shelia Clark, Darlene Vives, and Janoi Frye, talk about how they're going to visit their men, who are locked up for either murder or attempted murder. The women visit at least once a month. They say it's not only difficult emotionally, but also financially and logistically straining. 

When you are visiting a family member in prison, they explain, you might have to drive hours just to get to the facility. Many family members of inmates do not have a car, so they have to rely on van services. For $50, you can get a round trip from the city, but most of the vans make only one trip a day, which means you need to stay for the full eight-hour visit - impossible for many people's work schedules. The services are "janky," as Janoi Frye describes them. 

"You're crammed in with 14 other people and it's like a prison-wife clique," says Frye. "People are getting into fights or complaining about their husbands. But Calvin's service is civilized."

Buari's Ryderz still costs $50, but instead of being treated like cattle, rides are in a clean minivan with only four other people. Buari makes two trips a day so people can visit their family and still get back to the city by noon.

A year into operations, Buari says, the van service generated more than $100,000 in revenue. "Fifty dollars per person adds up," he says. "If we have cars going to Sing Sing, Attica, Five Points, Clinton, that's real money." If he can scale statewide, Buari believes he could build a multimillion-dollar business. "I'm rebuilding my legacy," says Buari. "But this time, I'm building a legitimate empire."

But there's a long road ahead. Ryderz Van Service is nowhere close to being the Uber of anything. Right now, it's a tiny business with three cars.

The Long Road Ahead

Buari's early days in prison went by slowly, punctuated by bouts of anger and self-loathing. At one point, Buari says, he accepted being wrongly convicted and felt he deserved it for running drugs. But about five years into his sentence, he decided to change after meeting Paul Clark, Shelia's husband, who is serving time for a murder he claims he didn't do. Instead of being angry, he would use all of his energy to get out and reinvent himself.  "America is all about second chances," Buari says.

Buari met another inmate, Trevers Jackson, who was serving 27 years for commercial burglary and tax evasion. At the time, Jackson was making leather goods to sell to inmates and Buari was running a clothing and shoe catalog company from his cell with assistance from his ex-wife.

The two men started helping each other, and pitched the prison's supervisor the idea for a class on how to run a small business that they would teach. They got it approved. The syllabus included lessons about how to form a legal entity and the basics of accounting and economics. "Most people are in prison because they didn't know how to make enough money legally," says Jackson, who has more than a decade left in his sentence at Green Haven. "This class, for me, is a way to help people learn that there are ways to live straight and make money."

Buari is now getting to test that theory in the real world. Buari's gift, as he describes it on his résumé, is being able to run a business in a "highly challenging business environment." But after nearly two decades cut off from the outside world, Buari is admittedly a Luddite. (Stuck in the "dinosaur age," as he describes it.) He still gets blown away by technology most take for granted, like smart phones. "The internet is beautiful," he says with no irony. "You can send money across the world in a second." He is hoping his brother, who runs a web development company in Virginia, can help build his company's app.

Buari arrives at his old home, Green Haven, which has imposing concrete slab walls punctuated with guard towers. After parking, his guests walk to the entrance and know the drill--cell phones in the lockers and get in line. A guard warmly greets Buari by name and compliments him on looking healthier as a civilian. "He used to walk around everyday with his case and legal documents, saying how he is getting out of here soon," says the guard, who goes by Mrs. S.

As we wait in line for about 30 minutes, Buari hands his card to everyone standing in the queue, explaining he's offering an "Uber-like" transportation service. More guards greet him after we remove our coats, belts, shoes, and hats, and clear the metal detector. "I knew you'd make it out!" says one, after we pass through an iron gate and head to the visiting center.

Once at a table, the women wait until their sons or husbands - all of whom have been imprisoned for more than a decade and have over a decade to go - come out to spend an afternoon in the gloomy room to talk and eat food from the vending machines. By the time Clark and Frye come out, it's about 9:30 a.m. "Services like Calvin's is what keeps families together," says Shelia Clark.

About two hours later, Buari steers the white minivan down the Tacoma Parkway back toward the city. A light April snow is falling as he tells me he used to drive commercial trucks up from Texas in the 1990s with packages of cocaine, smuggled from Mexico, hidden inside television sets. When asked how many kilos he brought to the streets of New York on a typical run, his eyes flash toward me - "tons," he says. Buari slows down to let a funeral procession pass on the right. He points to the hearse and I look over.

"See, the old Calvin is dead," Buari says. "The hustler can sell anything--a sock, a tire, even underwears. I'm not the same person I used to be and I believe in second chances."

Will Yаkоwicz

 

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