One Man's Effort To Escape New Orleans' Cycle Of Poverty And Incarceration

Jessie was born in jail, grew up in the projects, and spent time behind bars as an adult. Now, he hopes his budding coffee business can keep him on track.

This is a transcript of the audio story that was part of the Another Round Podcast:

I met Jessie Cage in front of a barbershop in the Central City neighborhood of New Orleans on a balmy and rainy afternoon in July. He's a tall dude, in a snap-back hat and a long-sleeved shirt, 36 years old, and he smiles like a politician on the campaign trail, which around these blocks is almost a little bit true.

JESSIE: "I got a lot of support. Everywhere I go people know me, 'cause I'm a well-known guy around here."

We huddled close to the barbershop's wall, trying to stay dry, and Jesse told me his Katrina story. Everybody in New Orleans has a Katrina story.

Jessie and his auntie and uncle left New Orleans the day before the storm hit. He was 26 at the time and drove them to Houston. They had family there. They didn't plan to stay long, and returned to New Orleans a few months later. The city was a shell of its old self, and the streets around their Central City neighborhood were empty and quiet.

JESSIE: "I came back, like, as soon as they opened the doors around here. 'Cause I was responsible for my uncle and my auntie, which was older people. They was like 70, 80 years old. So, by them raising me, I was responsible for bringing them to Houston for the storm, getting them back."

As Jessie's uncle was dying of Alzheimer's, Jessie decided it was his duty to take care him. His uncle auntie had done as much for him decades before.

JESSIE: "So they pretty much raised me, right around the corner of Amelia Street, so I'm out this area. My mom was in jail when I was born, my mom and daddy. I was born in jail actually, so that's the wild part about my life."

Jessie was born in an East Baton Rouge state prison, where his mother, a New Orleans native, was serving her sentence. He was born during an era when incarceration rates in New Orleans were rising higher and faster than anywhere else in the country. In the three decades before the storm, the city's jail population increased tenfold, even though the city's overall population declined.

By 2005, one out of every 77 residents in New Orleans was in jail. That's more than double the rate of the city in second place, Baltimore. More than four times the national average. Tulane law professor Katherine Mattes calls New Orleans, "ground zero for incarceration in the world."

Sentences in Louisiana are among the harshest in the country. The second time a person is charged for weed possession, it becomes a felony. Three drug convictions can mean life without parole. These stacked sentences are particularly dangerous in New Orleans, where the criminal justice system is largely funded through the fines and fees paid by the defendants who pass through it.

The system overwhelmingly sweeps up the city's low-income residents. More than 80 percent of defendants in New Orleans can't afford a lawyer. Derwyn Bunton, who has been the city's chief public defender since 2009, sees the daily toll the system takes on the city's poorest.

BUNTON: "We criminalize a lot of conduct. Our sentences are pretty severe and you couple that with a lot of poverty and lack of recourses all the way around and you get a pretty bad mix. And so our criminal justice system affects everything for people from housing to education to economic opportunity."

Katrina wiped out the system as it stood, flooding courthouses and jails, and driving lawyers and judges out of town. So they rebuilt it from scratch.

There's more oversight of the police department, the sheriff's office and the court system. The jail population dropped. Police arrested fewer people.

The city and state, for the first time, created a full time public defenders office.

But walk into the criminal courthouse on any given day, and it's clear that the progress didn't reach every resident equally. There is Bernard Noble, the father of seven who got a 13 year mandatory minimum for possession of 2.8 grams of weed because he had two prior drug convictions. Or Quincy Briggs, sentenced to 50 years in prison for possession of heroin with intent to distribute because of his two prior felonies. There are the dozens more people in orange jumpsuits who stream into court everyday to face their charges for the first time. Nearly all of them are black.

At the courthouse, I meet Terry, a 20-something New Orleans native.

TERRY: "All different races do these same kind of criminal things but, when it comes to a black person..."

Every few weeks, when he comes back for his girlfriend's hearings, he sees rooms filled with black people when he knows damn well that black people aren't the only ones committing crimes. To his mind, police are targeting black people, sweeping them up into the court system at highly disproportionate rates.

Even though the proportion of black residents in the city has dipped from 67 percent to 59 percent since Katrina, black defendants make up around the same portion of the jails and courtrooms. It's more than 80%.

It's a system that Norris Henderson has seen from both sides of the bar. He served 27 years in prison before a judge overturned his murder conviction. These days, he works with ex-offenders as they transition back into the outside world.

NORRIS: "Look at the line of people coming into this building, you can see the impact."

When he arrives at the courthouse in the morning, Norris sees families streaming in. Families who have taken days off from work to attend a hearing. Families who have scraped together whatever they can to pay for a lawyer or bail out a loved one.

The impact of the system goes beyond the folks in the orange jumpsuits sitting on the benches inside the courtroom. It goes into neighborhoods and households.

This ripple effect is why a decade of reforms can't erase the many years of poverty and oppression. For decades, husbands and wives, mothers and fathers got locked up. That means that generations of children, like Jessie, grew up with parents who weren't around.

JESSIE: "They were probably in for drugs and burglary back then, I'm guessing. My daddy probably burglary, man, and some stuff like that. He had a lot of time. He came home about '90, so he came home when I was about 10. My mama left to better herself. She moved to California. Left for like 17 years."

And so Jessie's uncle and auntie raised him in the Calliope Projects. He had a sharp business sense from the time he was young. When he was 10 he opened a car wash stand. When he was 12 he bought his first car, an old rusty thing for a few hundred dollars, and re-sold it for a few hundred more. But by his mid-teens he realized that his best business opportunity was doing what the older dudes around him were doing.

JESSIE: "Back in the day when we was growing up, we was young wild guys, growing up in the streets. Everybody in my family comes from a rough background. But some of us, like myself personally, I'm working on developing myself and being better, because whatever I might have did in my past, I don't do nothin' like that."

ALBERT: "What did you used to do in your past?"

JESSIE: "I mean I was arrested for drugs, so that tell you a lot."

He got arrested for drug possession and got two years of probation. Then he got picked up for violating that probation. He served 90 days in jail. The way drug laws work in Louisiana, another drug arrest and Jessie would be doing serious felony prison time, which he knew. He had six kids and, over those 90 days, he thought about them growing up without their father—like he did.

JESSIE: "I'ma figure out what to do when I got home because I wanna better myself."

He tried many businesses: selling homemade t-shirts. Real estate. Construction cleaning. But nothing made him any money. But then, one day in jail, it hit him: coffee.

Jessie woke up smelling coffee every day of his childhood. So many people drank it, he figured. Headed to work with their paper cups, from Starbucks or some other coffee shop probably owned by white people—none of that money going back into his own community.

JESSIE: I had a vision so I figured, once I come across some money, get my credit right, and invest it properly, I'ma pump the money into this business, 'cause this is what I wanna do, open a coffee shop.

He read The Idiot's Guide to Coffee. He researched online different ways of brewing and different types of coffee beans. He practiced making coffee at home.

JESSIE: It's really simple. Like, you roast the beans, to the brown beans, ground it up. It's easy as I'm saying it, but it's a process you do. By me studying the business for years and going to different experts talking to them and going online. To me it's easy, but it's something I love doing. For me to be stuck in a situation, ain't making no money no more, it's where people crack. And I was blessed to be able to pretty much do a lot of research myself. So I discovered a way to get it, in like a 150 pound sack at a time, where I could get it for a better price and more. So that's the route I take.

After a few months of studying and practicing, Jessie settled on the kind of beans he wanted to use and found a local supplier. Then he hit the streets, block parties and flea markets, handing out sample packs of grounds out his trunk. He gave them to people he struck up conversations with at the barbershop.

JESSIE: I guess it's like giving back to the community, some people pay. I just look at it as marketing. But you helping people by giving them a cup of coffee.

Not every story goes the way Jessie's has gone. He knows he was lucky. He didn't get picked up by the police on this day or that, and he didn't get charged for crimes he may or may not have committed. And so he didn't get caught up in the spiral. A felony follows a person even after prison.

Joe is a long time defense lawyer. he has seen it happen over and over: Not everybody returns to the outside world with ambitions of starting a new business. Most folks just want a job. And if they can't find a job, they need another way to survive.

JOE: "Jail's about breaking down his manhood so when he comes out he's not the same person as when he went in. If he's strong enough to not get broken down, when he come out he's still a man. He's gon do what he needs to do to support his family. He can't get a job. He can't get a house. He can't go to school. Most of these lifers, or longtimers, they got their GEDs when they were in jail. A lot of them who couldn't read and write, they come out writing better than lawyers write. You learn all these skills in jail but you can't apply them, 'cause when you come out here they say, 'Oh you got a record.'"

And so locals talk about a frustration that has built in New Orleans over the years, over the decades. A frustration that has deepened since the storm, as they watched the recovery spread unevenly across the city. To those locals, there is a sense of being forgotten about, ignored, as the rest of the city rebuilds and moves forward.

NORRIS: "It's so been entrenched here that it's gon' take a minute..."

Norris Henderson, the guy who helps ex-convicts get back on their feet, says the poverty is deeply entrenched, and so is the sense of hopelessness. And if the city's circumstances didn't change soon, he says, they're gon' have a Ferguson or Baltimore on their hands. And all it's gonna take is one incident to spark the powderkeg

NORRIS: "And, like, bam."

And bam.

Escaping that entrenched sense of hopelessness is part of Jessie's challenge. His story, like his business, has only started. He's always been a businessman. But his current business makes him less money than his previous endeavors. His friends ask him why he's grinding like this and not balling like he used to, not driving the same car. On a good month, he'll make about $1,000 in profits.

JESSIE: "Right now, I'm struggling in the business right now. Right now and tomorrow, I'm struggling. But I'm keeping it running. Because the money I make right now, to be honest, ain't enough to really save. I might make $40, I might make $100 here, I might make a couple of hundred here, but it's only enough to live. But it's worth it."

Jessie's past still hovers over him. He has a misdemeanor on his record, and one slip up could send him to prison for years. And there are his actions in his past life too, still lingering in some memories. Despite all that, Jessie feels he's blessed.

JESSIE: "I got pretty much everything I need to get what I want."

He's talking about business. He's talking about having the materials and knowledge he needed to, as he put it, take his company worldwide. But what Jessie also has is freedom, and opportunity.

A New Orleans Times-Picayune investigation a few years ago calculated that 1 out of every 7 black men in New Orleans was locked up, on parole, or on probation. There were 10 times more black men than white men from New Orleans in state prison. Those numbers are directly tied to the statistic so many in the city have memorized: more than half of black men in New Orleans were unemployed or out of the labor force, according to a 2011 Loyola University study.

It's a cycle that Jesse was born into. It's a cycle that easily could've swept him up. And yet here he is, still grinding, still trying to escape it.

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