(Photo by Don Kadair)
Before former Gov. Bobby Jindal left office in January, he commuted the life sentence of Harrison Cage, a state prison trusty who served as Jindal’s personal butler for eight years in the Governor’s Mansion.
The story made headlines at the time, but nearly one year later, where is Cage now? How did his second-chance story turn out? Well, for those wondering, he’s doing fine. In fact, he’s one of the success stories.
Since his release from prison, Cage has worked for well-known Baton Rouge employers like Gerry Lane Enterprises and Chef Don Bergeron. He found a place to live with family who welcomed him back with open arms. He even recently bought his own truck.
“I’m blessed,” Cage says. “I got a close-knit family. I think that’s what helped me. The transition hasn’t been hard. ”
But Cage is an exception among ex-offenders, and his story is unique. Despite a 1993 second-degree murder conviction, Cage became a prison trusty, served as Jindal’s butler and took care of his children. A Governor’s Mansion coordinator and prison warden even testified on his behalf, saying he posed no threat to society if released. And at the end of Jindal’s term, the conservative governor granted Cage clemency.
“People getting out of prison without support—I don’t know how they make it.”
Harrison Cage, former inmate (pictured above)
Not many people coming out of prison have a story like Cage’s. In Louisiana, nearly 50% of prisoners released each year return within the next five years. That’s because most ex-offenders face steep challenges when they re-enter society, and Cage sympathizes with them.
“People getting out of prison without support—I don’t know how they make it,” he says. “Oh god, no way.”
Hundreds of returning ex-offenders each year find needed support in the Capital Area ReEntry Coalition. The coalition, which was launched in 2008 by Healing Place Church and became a nonprofit in 2011, has a network of partners—faith-based organizations, private businesses, nonprofit organizations and government agencies—that provide a wide range of re-entry services, from employment and transportation to housing and rehabilitation.
The goal is to restore hope for returning citizens and reduce recidivism rates in Louisiana, a state notorious for having the highest incarceration rate in the country.
Jobs are crucial to achieving the coalition’s goal. From an evidence-based standpoint, employment reduces the risk of recidivism, and from a psychological standpoint, having a job boosts self-esteem, says CAPARC Executive Director James Windom.
“Employment is central to the welfare of the individual, the family and the community,” Windom says. “Employment creates an environment in which they can say, ‘I feel good about myself. I’m able to take care of my family.’”
After his release in January, Cage’s first job was with Gerry Lane. Then in April he was hired by Chef Don Bergeron for a full-time, entry-level position. Cage knew Bergeron from the Governor’s Mansion, where he often catered events.
“I really did like working for Don. I never missed any days,” he says.
But when his home flooded in August, Cage had to take time off at Bergeron’s and he eventually found another job with Jacobs Engineering Group. He says he’s fortunate to have had these opportunities because he knows other former inmates haven’t been so lucky. They often struggle with employment after re-entry, sometimes losing jobs on the spot once employers find out they’ve been incarcerated.
“They got some guys who made a mistake, but they’re good guys. I’ve worked with these guys a long time,” says Cage, who served time at David Wade Correctional Center from 1993 to 2006 before being moved to the State Police Barracks. “Just because someone made a mistake doesn’t mean they are a mistake.”
CAPARC has made great strides in forming relationships with businesses in the Capital Region, such as Gerry Lane Enterprises, Turner Industries and Benny’s, to provide job opportunities. But Windom knows it takes more than just getting people hired. For both employers and returning citizens, job performance matters.
“We’re now looking at, how do we define success? Job retention is key, not just job acquisition,” he says. “We want to make sure employers know we’re giving them a good product. We have to gain their trust so we can gain their help.”
The business community is also beginning to take a more active role in re-entry support. The Louisiana Association of Business and Industry hosted a forum on criminal justice reform in mid-November that included a panel on reducing recidivism through re-entry and addressing employer challenges.
When ex-offenders get out of prison—and stay out—it alleviates incarceration costs to the state, says Jim Patterson, LABI vice president of government relations. And when employers are open to hiring returning citizens, it not only reduces recidivism and saves state money, but it also widens their job applicant pool.
“We want to give employers an understanding of how this can help their workforce needs,” Patterson says. “Not enough employers get it yet.”
LABI has been increasingly supportive of re-entry programs and legislation in recent years, including a bill passed in 2014 that helps protect employers who hire ex-offenders, Patterson says. The criminal justice forum touched on these re-entry resources for employers and provided them an opportunity to network with criminal justice leaders.
One local company at the forefront of re-entry employment support has been Gerry Lane Enterprises. Its Baton Rouge auto dealerships have been helping former inmates transition back into society for 25 years now. Eric Lane, company president, says his dealerships hire about two to three former inmates each year. They are selective and screen applicants heavily to ensure the people they hire don’t pose a risk to their customers or business.
“You have to be careful. That’s why I like teaming up with James Windom and the coalition,” Lane says. “For the most part, we’ve got some good people who have paid their debt to society and want to be productive citizens.”
Those hired out of prison by Gerry Lane Enterprises typically work as shop technicians, painters or body and detail workers, says Lane, who sits on the state Prison Enterprises Board and is involved in the automotive technology training program at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. He recalls one woman in particular who got a job cleaning the dealerships after she was released from prison. She now owns her own home and has gotten married.
“I wish more people would give these people a chance and see what kind of good employees they can be.”
Eric Lane, president, Gerry Lane Enterprises
People make mistakes in life, Lane says, but once they serve their time, they shouldn’t have to keep paying for those mistakes for the rest of their lives.
“They deserve an opportunity,” he says. “I feel bad when I see people shun these people like the plague. I wish more people would give these people a chance and see what kind of good employees they can be.”
And supporting re-entry isn’t only about goodwill. Many men and women coming out of prison have developed skills in certain trades and can be valuable assets to a company, says Wayne Tyson, workforce development manager at Turner Industries, which also partners with the re-entry coalition.
“There is so much talent and untapped resources,” he says.
TAKING A CHANCE
When hiring people out of prison, Turner Industries looks for those with training. They can work in craft jobs as pipefitters, welders and millwrights, but the company is sometimes limited in where they can place them. Ex-offenders can apply for Transportation Worker Identification Credential cards, but they don’t qualify for security passports, which are required at some plants, so employers send them to fabrication shops outside the plants or facilities that don’t require security passports.
“Our philosophy is if we don’t help them become full citizens they may go back to what they know,” Tyson says. “The key is to give them that chance. Plus, it’s good talent. The biggest challenge is being able to place them.”
He recalls one man who had been incarcerated for armed robbery, but once he was released, he found a job with Turner and worked his way up to becoming a foreman.
Shedding light on the success stories and having the support of big-name employers like Turner Industries and Gerry Lane Enterprises builds CAPARC’s credibility in the community and helps the coalition reach its goals.
“Having someone else be a voice for re-entry is as important as getting funding and everything else, because the scope and depth of community involvement is directly proportional to who’s talking,” Windom says, adding that having the support of people who have no first-hand experience with the incarcerated is also vital to the cause.
“CAPARC is just the head on the pen. The pen is the important part, and all of our partners make up the pen.”
James Windom, executive director, Capital Area ReEntry Coalition
The coalition is dependent on partnerships with not only employers, but universities, community and technical colleges, workforce training agencies, nonprofits, faith-based groups and government agencies. Some of CAPARC’s biggest partners are Hope Ministries, Baton Rouge Community College, Goodwill, Volunteers of America and Connections for Life.
Windom says the coalition is currently going through a restructuring process to secure official commitments from partners and members, and to add more structure to the organization as a whole. He also wants to bring more awareness to partner groups and the many ways in which they support re-entry.
“CAPARC is just the head on the pen,” Windom says. “The pen is the important part, and all of our partners make up the pen.”