Breaking Barriers and Breaking the Cycle


"Don't wait on opportunity. Create opportunity."

Cane describes his upbringing as “a little bit different than most.” When his single mom hooked up with a flashy drug dealer, 12-year-old Cane was recruited into the business, helping to transport cocaine from New York City retail shops to his home in New Jersey. “This is what I was taught. This is what I was conditioned. This is what I knew.”

It was ten years before the inevitable happened. Cane became another statistic—Essex County 22-year-old arrested for selling crack cocaine and possession of an illegal weapon. His sentence was so harsh for a first offender that fellow inmates and even probation officers couldn’t make sense of it. He was told that the law changed on the day he got arrested—so that, what might have resulted in probation just earlier in the day, was now mandatory incarceration. That didn’t quite jibe with his experience in court as he watched a white prep-school student with almost the same charges get three years of probation, while he was sentence to three years in prison. The difference between their drug offenses? One was powder cocaine; the other crack cocaine. “I sat, and I sat, and I sat.”

With a wired-shut broken jaw, Cane slept on a concrete floor at the county jail with about 30 other inmate—unable to eat solid foods and with no access to medical care—for two weeks until his mom convinced them to take him to the infirmary. From there he was transferred to another facility to finish out his three-year sentence before being released in 2011. Roughly 25,000 people were incarcerated in New Jersey’s prisons that year, a number that has since declined to approximately 19,000 and translates into about 16,000 adults and juveniles released from state custody each year. Nearly two-thirds of the Department of Corrections inmate population is African-American, compared to that group comprising only 14% of the general public statewide.

According to Akil Roper, LSNJ Vice President, Chief Counsel of Prisoner Reentry and Co-Coordinator of the Racial and Economic Justice Initiative:

Disproportionality speaks not just to the volume of Blacks and people of color in the criminal justice system, but also their disparate treatment within that system. One potential key source driving disproportionality deep within the system are decision making points—whether an individual is formally charged or released by curbside warning or stationhouse adjustment, whether to dismiss a case or continue prosecution, whether an individual receives a diversionary program or conviction, or whether to incarcerate or place on probation—all decisions ripe for measure of implicit bias to affect individual and collective outcomes.

“I definitely feel like the system was rigged towards me,” says Cane, who was assured by cellmates that he would be offered probation, since he had no prior arrests. “Then that was, like, basically waved away.”

As Cane neared the end of his sentence, he was able to take advantage of some pre-release programs. He took college courses and even held a job at a halfway house following his release. At 25 years old, he says he was “definitely ready to reenter society.” But things went downhill from there, as he faced one barrier after another trying to reintegrate. He moved out of state with his wife and children, only to find jobs, housing, and even education, were all out of reach.

According to one national study, In Search of a Job: Criminal Records as Barriers to Employment, by A.L. Solomon, simply having a criminal record can reduce the likelihood of a job callback or offer by approximately 50%. That trend rang true for Cane, who says,

Having a label of a felon trying to get a job—it's just like close to impossible. You know, when you see that question—Have you ever been convicted of a felony?—you just want to say ‘no,’ because you know once you put ‘yes,’ it's over.

When he and his wife searched for an apartment, he says, “I remember telling her like, Don't put me on a lease. Don't put me on a lease. If you put me on a lease, we're not gonna get an apartment.” She wanted to feel like a family unit and send a message of unity, but it cost them the apartment. “If you can't find a place to live, what you gonna do. I mean, where you gonna be? You're gonna be in that same position, you know what I mean, doing the same exact things you was doing before.”

Cane even tried getting into a vocational school to learn how to repair boats and ATVs. “Due to my record, they was like, Nah, you're not allowed on campus.”

He speaks of needing to hold onto his integrity and keep his mind straight, while putting his pride aside—accepting that his wife would need to be the primary breadwinner while he carved a new path for himself.

I couldn't provide at one point, and that's the worst feeling for a man—not being able to provide for your family. Not being able to provide, you know, for your kids, when they ask you for something—like, that's just the worst feeling. And I think that's the reason a lot of people actually go back to prison, because they go back to what they know.

He also speaks of the need to live his life as if he had no felony, surrounding himself with positive influences, thinking outside the box, and refusing to give up. When it became clear that no one was going to hire him, Cane used the entrepreneural spirit he had honed in his youth and decided to “boss up.” He took the risky step of starting his own business—first a food truck; then a photography company—and it paid off.

When things get hard, find a way. Don't wait on opportunity. … Create opportunity. Because a lot of places ain’t gonna hire you because you're a felon. They're gonna say no. That door gonna close. You’re gonna go to another one and that's gonna close and that's gonna close; and, after a while, your pride gonna be—it’s gonna be hurt. And you're gonna be walking around, your head down, because you felt like you gave it everything you had. But you didn't. You didn't give it everything you had. Man, we all got a talent. And the thing is sometimes we'd rather put ourselves in a position to work for somebody else, rather than work for ourselves and invest in our own talents.  … Eliminate the middleman and make yourself a boss. It's time to boss up.

Cane didn’t just start a business. He and his wife also began mentoring local youth to try to help them make better decisions and choose a different path. He hadn’t given serious consideration to trying to expunge his record because he heard it was nearly impossible. But when he began helping his wife coach a middle school girls basketball team, the girls quickly caught on to his skills as both a player and a coach, and urged him to become their coach. “I wish I could. I wish I could,” he would say—not wanting to divulge the record that prevented him from doing so.

Prompted by their excitement, he decided to petition to expunge his record—first on his own, and then with the help of Legal Services. Since he hadn’t yet met the required waiting period, he would need to convince the court that it would be in the best interest of the public to expunge his record. The support was overwhelming, from friends and family, the local chamber of commerce, clergy members, even sheriffs. It took more than six months, but, in the end, he was successful. Not only was he able to coach basketball, but expunging his record also enabled him to begin working with inmates to help them find their way, and to "give them hope."

“People make mistakes all the time,” says Cane. “The difference is some get caught and some don't.” He would like to see more mentorship programs, and more support for people who just need a second chance. Of the system as a whole, he says,

When you're dealing with certain cities that have huge caseloads, and they just railroad people off, and it becomes a swap game. They don't really have time to, you know, really dive into your record and, you know, pick it apart and say, ‘Yo, this person shouldn't be going away for three years. This person deserves a program, rather than to be put in prison for three years.’ I think that's something that's huge. Like, when you look at the incarceration rate, and how a lot of the jails are just overpopulated and how they just holding people in for simple charges, or they just pushing you through. … you know, the way we evaluate cases and the caseload that we have in these overpopulated jails, I think we need to change that.

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