A Union City resident, Ortiz was incarcerated in January 1990 with a sentence of 49 years and six months on drug charges under harsh sentencing requirements, under “The Rockefeller Drug Laws.”
Although since discredited as inappropriate punishment, the laws often resulted in long sentences for people who under today's guidelines would not serve nearly as long.
For many people, the unfairness of the sentencing would have been discouraging and might have left a man like Ortiz bitter.
Instead, Ortiz decided to learn to cook
During his incarceration, Ortiz enrolled in cooking classes, earning several culinary certifications and soon became a head cook. He believes his dedication to learning and cooking is what led him to be released 18 years early.
And during his time in various federal prisons throughout the country he became a head cook, overseeing a culinary team of 20 people who prepared meals for as many as 2,500 inmates every day.
He had a dream that he might open a place of his own someday, something that seemed impossible. But in late 2016, outgoing President Obama granted Ortiz a pardon as part of an effort to release prisoners with disproportionately harsh sentences. That set Ortiz on the path from federal prison at Fort Dix to set up shop on Martin Luther King Drive in Jersey City.
“I deliberately opened it here,” he said as he got ready for the official ribbon cutting.
El Sabor Del Café is located near the southern most portion of MLK Drive in an area filled with hope and life, yet struggling to find identity in an every changing Jersey City.
It is a neighborhood where most people know each other, wave or call, as daylight brings out workers or those who are seeking work.
For Ortiz, the location is important because it is a short distance from Martin's Place, and the reentry program that helped him from the moment he was released from prison.
‘Two men who changed my life’
He was enrolled in a program by New Jersey Reentry Corporation (NJRC) which provides ex-offenders with addiction treatment, structured sober housing, job training and employment, linkage to legal services and healthcare, and spiritual mentoring. After orientation, clients traditionally receive case management services for a six- to nine-month period.
“They found me a job within five days,” he said, pointing to two pictures mounted on the wall behind the counter, one of President Obama, and the other of former Gov. Jim McGreevey, who oversees NJRC in Jersey City. “These are the two men who changed my life.”
In some ways, Oritz's dream come true is also one for the neighborhood he chose to open his store. He has become a symbol of hope for redemption in a neighborhood struggling to cling to both.
The letter from Obama came just in time for the store to open, as Ortiz oversaw the final touches before officials came from the city and various programs to help cut the ribbon on his new life.
He moved through the kitchen checking on details of preparation just the way he must have on countless mornings while in prison with one important difference – he is doing it as a free man.
Beyond the harsh rhetoric of the national political stage, local success stories like his provide the nuts and bolts for rebuilding decaying urban neighborhoods like this. And it is dreamers like Ortiz, hoping for what might otherwise seem like impossible dreams, that make those efforts a reality. It is small businesses like his with its handful of tables and chairs, steaming kettles and dedicated customers that reshape this world.
Ortiz, who was born in Dominican Republic, settled into Union City with his family before he was incarcerated in 1990, and returned there when he got out of prison in January. He still lives there. But he said he wanted to open his store here near the reentry program to provide an example of just what hope can accomplish in part of the city desperate to find hope.
His cafe opens on a block with a handful of other small businesses, a deli, a mini-mart, a phone store, a beauty salon, all struggling to take back the block from the boarded up buildings that encroach upon it.
McGreevey was the first dignitary to arrive, bearing a small gift for Ortiz as well as hugs and kisses for the staff.
Through McGreevey's efforts, Ortiz was able to establish himself quickly. The group got a copy of his birth certificate through the Dominican Republic embassy, and from there on was able to rebuild the documentation needed to start on his new life.
McGreevey said many of those incarcerated are not so lucky. Green cards inmates have when going into prison get lost or expire, and so they cannot find work, housing, and other things they need when rebuilding their lives.
“Even legal immigrants often do not have the documentation they need,” he said.
This puts them at risk of being detained, and creates a legal nightmare for them to prove they are in the United States legally.
NJRC's role is to help people like Ortiz and others wade through the bureaucratic nightmare so that they can reestablish themselves in the everyday world. The organization works closely with the NJ Bar Association which has 70 attorneys working on such cases throughout the state.
Don’t detain – retrain
McGreevey is extremely critical of a justice system that imposes unreasonably harsh sentences on people like Ortiz.
“There are two million people incarcerated in the United States today,” he said. “It costs far less to retrain people than to keep them in prison, and it is far more productive.”
Obama's letter arriving when it did was no accident. McGreevey said he emailed Obama requesting it, hoping it would arrive in time
Within a week of completing NJRC’s orientation, Ortiz was employed as a cook at the Light Rail Café in Jersey City, where he learned another aspect of cooking,
“It’s a small place, but I feel comfortable because I learned something different. In life, it’s never too late to learn something,” he said.
At 58, Ortiz embarks on a new life, saying he is grateful to Obama and to McGreevey.
“I chose to be on MLK Drive because I want to help others in the ‘hood the way these people helped me.”
McGreevey, of course, is able to help Ortiz in another way. NJRC in Jersey City has contracted the store to provide meals for its clients. This could be expanded in the future to other NJRC programs elsewhere in the state such as Paterson, McGreevey said.
State Sen. Sandra Cunningham, a strong supporter of reentry programs, said she was very proud of Ortiz
“You are everything I work for in Trenton, where we want to turn people's lives around.”
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.