According to The National Registry of Exoneration, Orleans Parish has the highest exoneration rates per capita in the country. A few of the reasons for this alarmingly high false incarceration rate include official misconduct, mistaken eyewitness identification, and perjury or false accusation. Robert Jones, Jerome Morgan, and Daniel Rideau—all exonerees—collectively spent 50 years incarcerated for crimes they did not commit. They eventually came together and wrote a book, Unbreakable Resolve: Triumphant Stories of 3 True Gentlemen, chronicling their lives growing up in New Orleans and how ending up in Angola couldn’t deter their desire to be free. Jones spent over 23 years imprisoned, falsely accused of rape, manslaughter, kidnapping, and robbery. Morgan served 20 years for a murder he did not commit. Rideau was given a life sentence in 1994 for murder and freed eight years later. In spite of their past hardships, these men now advocate for a more just society. I sat down with Jones to discuss the importance of Free-Dem Foundations and why it’s vital to underserved communities in the city.

Why did the Free-Dem Foundations start?

The concept came from me and Jerome Morgan, who is the other cofounder. We was inside the prison, and we used to meet and talk about the different things that we used to see from inside the prison, about how the young Black youth was constantly involved in Black-on-Black crime, all this violence, dropping out of school, and going to jail. So we were looking at it and we’re like, “Man, seems like nobody have no solution.” Most people, they come up with “Stop the Violence” concepts, or come up with these programs without actually talking to the youth and seeing what their problems are. And so, we inside the prison, and we thought about it and we’re like, “You know what? When we get out, we’re gonna create a youth organization to put these kids on the right track.”

What is its purpose?

The organization is about providing kids with life skills; we call it soft skills and hard skills. Soft skills is providing them with life skills, things that they don’t teach in school. We teach them how to pay bills, how to save money, how to disengage a situation, conflict resolution. We got the concept of teaching them how to think, opposed to what to think; how to use your thinking ability to push yourself forward. Teach them history—real history, the history that they don’t get in school. Teach them about where they came from as a people. Teach them how to understand the economics of our society. The reason why we need to teach them about economics is because most people confuse economics with just finance. But economics is technically the resources that exist in society. So, how to utilize those resources or services the youth need to help them progress in life, to navigate this society and move forward. Access to housing, education, financial education, health services, to name a few. And the hard skill part is that we link them up with apprenticeship programs that we initiated with a lot of small businesses, teach them how to be electricians, teach them how to go forward and be carpenters, some type of skill set. And eventually they have to go to school and get certified. But they can get the skill as they go along. And one of the things we tell them all the time is: if you got a skill set, no matter if you stay in New Orleans or Chicago, you can go somewhere and find a job.

Did your wrongful conviction propel you to start the foundation?

Statistics show anybody can be wrongfully convicted; but mainly, a majority of young Black males are seemingly being targeted. So my thing is that I use my experience of being wrongfully convicted as an eye-opener to them, to guide them in the right direction. In terms of my wrongful conviction, me being convicted at the age of 19, high school dropout, living in a poor community—it’s kinda like the same background a lot of these guys are growing up in. And it was horrible because I didn’t understand nothing about the judicial system and a lot of those guys in that same situation. I look at me being a 19-year-old kid being arrested and convicted of a crime I did not commit, and being totally ignorant of what’s going on in the criminal justice system. I don’t want them to be that same 19-year-old kid I was.

So you’re able to establish trust pretty much right off the bat, because you have that close link with these kids?

They have more trust with me, Jerome Morgan, and Danny Rideau, and other guys who we bring on as mentors who also have been convicted or did time in prison. They have more trust with us than they seem to be having with their parents or other elders in their family. And not to say that they don’t rely on their parents or elders, it’s just that we resonate more with them because of our experience. And the things that we have experienced are some of the same things that they’re experiencing in the community as a whole. And they realize our sincerity because we explain our reasons why we want to do it, [so] they open up. We have these sessions with them and we let them express themselves; and we express ourselves to them. And I think that’s one of the biggest things that establishes trust, because we allow them to express themselves, how they feel about something—not telling them the correct way to see it, not telling them how to do something, just express yourself. Tell me how you feel about this? What you think about this here? And I think that’s ultimately important.

In previous conversations you mentioned the phrase, “Know Thyself, Own Thyself.” Can you talk more in detail about what that means to you?

You knowing who you are is powerful, right? So all our programs is revolved around that particular model. You knowing exactly who you are as a person, knowing your capabilities, knowing your potentials. When you know who you are, it gives you a level of, not arrogance, but confidence. And “Own Thyself”: we teach economics, we teach entrepreneurship and time management. Nothing wrong with working, right? But the thing is that you want to be able to work, save your money, properly use your money, create your own business, allow other people to work your business, and you buy your own time back. You own your own time. We want them to really know who they are, know what their self-value is, and then go out in the world, show the world who you are, use your skill set that you have acquired and the things that you learned and create opportunities for other people. A lot of kids gravitate towards that because it’s something that’s innate with them. They feel like they’re supposed to be their own bosses. Not everybody gonna want to be entrepreneurs, and not everybody gonna want to own their own business. We have to have folks that want to be doctors, lawyers, judges, politicians, representatives, and different things of that nature. But also we need folks to be leaders in the community and to give other folks opportunity that’s not as fortunate as they are. So that’s what we teach them. They love the concept. They gravitate towards it, man.

How would you define urban community failure? Does it push you to do the work you’re doing?

I think the failures I have seen in prison, I’ve studied [them]… why is so many kids failing in these impoverished communities? What’s really going on? So the next thing that came to me is about the resources. And so when I got out, I kinda seen that resources are not that accessible to a lot of these kids that live in these communities. The thing is that when you are living in these kinds of communities and environments, you’re living in survival mode every day. You know there’s two different modes you’re gonna live in as a human being—the mode of using your intellect more or the mode of survival. When resources are available—when you have a good education, you got a good job, you got a decent home to live in, you have a decent neighborhood to live in—you’re using your intellect more. On the flip side, when you come from a broken home, when you live in a community that’s riddled with crime, drugs, violence, poor housing, poor schooling, no food—you always in survival mode. One of the ways Free-Dem Foundations aid a lot of those communities, we get the kids out that environment, the ones who want to participate, and we bring them to the resources, guiding them, holding their hand until they’re able to walk on their own. And I think our society is definitely failing, because just think about it: most people that govern our society, they didn’t come out those neighborhoods, right? So they can only assume how to fix it.

Do you envision the foundations being in multiple cities?

We have been working on creating our first model base in which we are targeting all of the metropolitan areas, which is the larger areas that a majority of African-Americans stay, in these poor areas. We’re targeting these particular areas. We’re trying to create a Free-Dem Foundations youth resident program, more like a safe house. We want to create these things inside the community to become a beacon of light. In particular, we want a 4-plex house. We’re going to convert that into a space where we can at least put four guys that live-in, get ‘em a 90-day training proceeding. After they leave that house, they’ll have a job, they’ll have life skills, they’ll have a skill set, they can leave out of this particular program and they can become a man, crossing from childhood to adulthood. We [created] a model here in New Orleans because communities don’t differ anywhere—what’s going on in New Orleans is going on in Baltimore; what’s going on in Ferguson is going on in New Orleans. So if we create a model that works here, it can work in Ferguson, it can work in Baltimore, it can work in various different places. And our goal is to try to put one or maybe two hubs in every major city in the country. That’s our long-term vision of it.

For more info on Free-Dem Foundations and Unbreakable Resolve: Triumphant Stories of 3 True Gentlemen, check out freedemfoundations.org.

photo by Jason Kerzinski