What it’s like to serve a life sentence without the possibility of release: NPR

Left to right, Gordon Newman, Frank Green, Sammie Robinson and Terry Pierce talk about life at Angola Louisiana State Penitentiary.

Visiting room project

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Visiting room project

What it's like to serve a life sentence without the possibility of release: NPR

Left to right, Gordon Newman, Frank Green, Sammie Robinson and Terry Pierce talk about life at Angola Louisiana State Penitentiary.

Visiting room project

When Calvin Duncan was 19, he was arrested for a murder he didn’t commit.

“I was in Angola for 24 years,” he says.

He heard the same story over and over again from other inmates: “That they were innocent, that they did not commit the crimes for which they were in prison.”

Not everyone was legally innocent, of course. Duncan says many people have been misled by drug issues or poverty. And they made mistakes. Mistakes that change lives.

“They went down that road, you know, committing petty crimes. And then in some cases it escalated into murder that they regret,” he says.

Since becoming a free man in 2011, Duncan has dedicated his time to telling the stories of those still inside, through an immersive digital experience called The Visiting Room Project. Filmed in Angola, the Louisiana State Penitentiary, the project contains 100 interviews with prisoners serving life without parole, and allows audiences to watch and hear the men tell their stories in their own words.

Sammie Robinson says life in prison now is very different from when he first entered.

The definition of a “life sentence” has changed

When Duncan reflects on his time inside, what bothers him most is how young some of his fellow inmates were when they landed in prison. He says many of them had not developed enough emotionally or mentally to fully understand what was going on.

Duncan, like many of these young men, was supposed to serve a life sentence without the possibility of parole. Then The Innocence Project stepped in, and ultimately he was exonerated after more than two decades.

When Duncan finally left prison, he couldn’t forget the men still locked up. He wanted to find a way for the public to know them like him. This led him to meet Marcus Kondkar, professor of sociology at Loyola University in New Orleans, with whom he co-founded The Visiting Room Project.

“He would share with me what the data showed, how many people were serving life without parole in Louisiana,” Duncan said. “But what the data didn’t show was who these men were.”

Duncan had a particular insight into this. He had spent his time in Angola becoming a lawyer. So he heard many personal stories from fellow inmates who came to him for legal advice.

“For 23 years, my job was to assess death row inmates and also wrongly convicted,” he says. “I saw them become productive men. And they became the prison mentors – the cooks, the horsemen. They became the preachers; in some cases, like me, became lawyers, prison lawyers. “

Terry Pierce provides legal assistance to fellow inmates.

Duncan’s release achievement is rare, especially in the state of Louisiana. The chances of getting a life sentence commuted or overturned are barely 1%. And the former prison in Duncan, Angola, plays an important role in the history of state prison policy.

Life sentences were not always a “no way out” situation. For most of the 20th century, the meaning of a life sentence in Louisiana was 10 to 15 years. Persons serving a life sentence could apply for commutation after 15 years. In 1926, Louisiana shortened this time to 10 years and six months to reduce costs in Angola. This became known as the “10/6 Law”, under which the state released over 90% of those sentenced to life by commutation. It was also common in 13 other states at the time.

Everything changed in 1972, after the Supreme Court temporarily overturned the death penalty. All prisoners sentenced to death in Louisiana had their sentences converted to life. And after deciding that the life sentence itself should be harsher for these prisoners, Louisiana began to establish higher minimum years before parole eligibility. The state started with a 20-year minimum in 1973, raised it to 40 a few years later — before finally abolishing parole eligibility altogether for anyone serving a life sentence.

Gordon Newman says he feels “terrible remorse” for his actions.

Now, a life sentence means exactly that: permanent imprisonment. Louisiana prisons today hold thousands of people serving life sentences without the possibility of parole. 73% of all life-sentenced prisoners in Angola are black. Many are over 50 years old. Population aging meant that many prisons had to set up palliative care programs, mostly staffed by fellow inmates who are also serving life sentences.

“Many of us volunteer for the palliative care program,” says Terry Pierce, one of the interviewees in The Visiting Room project. “We care for people who, just like us, came here young and are dying in prison. The hospice gives us a glimpse of where we are headed.”

Angola’s first prison cemetery is full. They’ve built a second one but that’s almost full too.

Duncan wants people to see prisoners as more than a number

When asked how his interviewees felt about sitting down for the project and sharing their personal stories with strangers, Duncan said they were grateful.

“No one had known about the trauma they had been through,” he says. “By allowing them to have a space for which they could tell their story – not the story of their crime, but who they are now – The Visiting Room gave them that opportunity.”

“Because when you’re in jail, one of the things you don’t do is show no weakness. That’s who they are, that’s the thing they were most grateful for, is to have that opportunity.”

Gordon Newman says he feels “terrible remorse” for his actions.

And as for his own hopes for the project? He wants people to stop seeing prisoners as numbers and data. And instead, see the men who became his friends — and the man he was for over 20 years.

“We should get to know the person the data represents,” he says. “I hope people realize that young people make mistakes. In many cases, they make terrible mistakes. Once their brains start developing, they become productive people, people we would be proud of. .”

“[I would like people] say, “I’d like Calvin to be my next door neighbor. I wish Calvin was sitting in a class – in a law class. So that’s what I would like the public to see, that’s what happens when our kids grow up.”

The radio interview was conducted by Juana Summers, produced by Lauren Hodges and edited by Sarah Handel.


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