Melissa Harris-Perry: This is The Takeaway and I'm Melissa Harris-Perry.
Mr. Darrell Waters: People come and see us and they tell us how great we are and how we bless their lives and yet they leave us in this condition.
Melissa Harris-Perry: More than 55,000 people across the US are incarcerated with the sentence of life without parole.
Mr. Darrell Waters: Then we lose our hair, we begin to get gray and then we start having a stoop and bend over and then they have to visit us on the ward and then it's all over.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Thousands sentenced to a living death.
Mr. Darrell Waters: I realize that I could possibly die in Angola, that this could be the sum total of my life.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Angola, it's the common name for the Louisiana State Penitentiary. 4,400 men in the state are serving life without parole, and it's the highest rate in the country. You've been hearing the voice of one, Mr. Darrell Waters, who was sentenced to prison in 1992. Angola takes its colloquial name from the plantation that preceded it, an 8,000 acre slave labor camp, which in turn was named for the West African nation from where the Portuguese exported human beings to be used as beasts of burden. After the 13th Amendment was ratified in 1865, intergenerational chattel slavery was formally abolished.
Slavery as a punishment for crime, that persisted and Jim Crow laws and Black Codes instituted in Louisiana meant that the state continued to fuel its economy with the labor of black men leased to work without pay. Now, though the practice known as convict leasing ended in 1901, using prisoners for labor never did. According to a 2017 analysis by the prison policy initiative, modern day inmates at Angola can be paid as little as 2 cents an hour for their full-time work in cotton fields, manufacturing warehouses, the kitchens, all fueling the operation of the prison.
Angola is notorious towards brutal treatment of prisoners. In the early 20th century, thousands of inmates were underfed, beaten and tortured by guards. To this day solitary confinement can be used as a punishment for those who refuse to work or simply don't perform to the supervisor's standards. The legacy of the Angola slave camp is the prison's present. Today 74% of Angola's prisoner population is Black.
For the men who are sentenced to live and die behind Angola's walls, there's a sense that they've been long forgotten, but a new project is documenting their stories. It's called the Visiting Room Project and the interview you heard with Mr. Darrell Waters is just one of 109 given by men serving life without parole, many of whom feel that the world will never get to see how they've changed since they were locked away and who they've now become. Darrell Waters again.
Mr. Darrell Waters: I've made sure that my life is very purposeful. Every time I invest myself into someone else, I free a part of myself. Especially with these mentees, I tell them, man, don't waste me. Don't waste me. When you get out of here, utilize me. Everybody I talk to, my mother, my family, friends, when I do interviews, whatever I do, a part of me will leave here with you. Whomever I come into contact with, I'm going to love people so passionately until a part of me will always live outside of the gates of Angola.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I recently spoke with two folks who've been intimately involved in the Visiting Room Project.
Marcus: I am Marcus Kondkar. I'm the Chair of the Sociology Department at Loyola University in New Orleans and the co-creator of the Visiting Room Project.
AC: My name is Arthur Carter. I'm barely known as AC and I've been just recently released from Louisiana State Penitentiary, July 7th. I was incarcerated for 35 years and 4 days.
Melissa Harris-Perry: AC is one of the men who told his story on camera for the Visiting Room. He was originally sentenced to life without parole in 1989 at just 25-years-old. His sentence was reduced this year. At the time of our interview, he'd only been outside of the prison for 48 days and the pressure to readjust and to succeed on the outside can be enormous, but AC told me he was eager to tell his own story.
AC: I'm doing great. I'm really doing super. I'm having the opportunity. In the 35 years that I was incarcerated, of course, I had a lot of time to just reflect on things that I wish I could do. Once I got the opportunity to be released, I'm actually just involved in doing some of the things that I really, really thought was really important to me. One of the most essential things is reunite with my family, because the 35 years incarceration takes you totally out their lives. That's what I've been definitely focusing on.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now, AC, I'm old enough to say that at 24 you were a baby. You were a baby when you were given life without parole sentence. Can you tell me a little bit about the circumstances that led to your incarceration at Angola?
AC: Yes, ma'am. I had graduated from high school before then, I went to the United States Marines. I had honorably discharged at 21. I was working for my father as a painting contractor. In the midst of that, on one evening I had made a life changing decision. I had ran into a female that was involved with the use of crack cocaine and that was my first time ever using the drug. I used it, I had no idea how powerful that drug was, how weak I would become to the drug. Once I used it, within a year my whole life had changed. It wasn't even a year. I had began a practice of just getting high all the time and it just brought me to a situation where I was going back and forth out of rehab centers.
I lost total control of every piece of will and everything that I've ever accomplished in my life. This one evening, I brought two guys to my house for the purpose of rocking cocaine, like I told you before. While they was there supposed to be assisting me in rocking the cocaine, we got into an altercation where I stabbed one of the guys once and that's how I got convicted for second degree murder.
Melissa Harris-Perry: It sounds to me like all those years, those decades spent incarcerated, you've done a lot of thinking. I know for me when I think about you being 24, sometimes 24-year-olds' make not the world's best decisions doesn't mean you shouldn't be held accountable, but life without the possibility of parole that seems like too much.
AC: It does. It is. That's why I got to thank God for the Visiting Room Project because during that particular time, I just felt that I had a story to tell and it was a story that it seemed to be like going back and forth through the courts. Nobody was interested in hearing. When Dr. Marcus came to Angola, I was really interested in just expressing myself and being able to tell a story. Working as the inmate counsel, a lot of guys come to me with different situations. Their personal circumstances and the facts of their case, I understood about them. I just knew my predicament was a lot different.
A lot of guys were products of being in foster home, they didn't have parents. I'm from New Orleans, but I never lived in a project. I had a mother and father that was very nourishing for me, that was right there with me. I had a stay-at-home mom that practically raised me every step of the way. I went to the Marines. I had traveled all around the world. I wanted to tell my story, because like you said, I just thought that life sentences, giving a categorical sentence of life without parole was just an extreme measure. I just thought that there's different people that's incarcerated for different reasons and every one of them deserve to be looked at in different ways.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Marcus, talk to me about the Visiting Room Project. I just heard AC say that it was life changing for him. What motivated you to undertake the project? Tell us about it.
Marcus: I live and work in New Orleans and I spent a lot of time analyzing data on incarceration and sentencing patterns with a focus on life without parole sentences. Some years ago I met another man who had spent 28 and a half years on a life sentence before winning his freedom with the help actually from the Innocence Project named Calvin Duncan.
Calvin ended up being one of the co-creators of the project. He had spent most of that time at Angola as what they call inmate counsel very similar to AC. He knew all these people there serving life sentences because he worked on their cases and actually grew up with them. He knew their stories of change, of transformation.
He knew the human beings behind that data. As we talked, we realized that very few people know about the changes that happen behind prison walls because they have no access to them. I guess it's one of the consequences of designing prisons to keep people in is that they keep the rest of us out. The people who are actually serving these very long sentences remain a abstraction to us. Actually, we also remain somewhat logically skeptical about transformation because we don't see it.
We're suspicious of folks coming back into our communities because of that and so we realized we've got to get in there and get their stories out and rather than speaking for the people serving life without parole, we had to figure out a way for them to speak for themselves in their own words. I designed an ethnographical oral history project. It was initially for an academic audience. Once we started filming we realized that we happened across something really quite extraordinary and I think it needs to be shared beyond an academic audience because of what we had, not only the access which is very unusual to be able to go into a prison and interview folks one on one with nobody else there.
Melissa Harris-Perry: That is not the experience those of us as family members and loved ones have when wanting to visit. You actually had more access than family has. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Marcus: The plan originally was for Calvin and me to interview folks together, but that fell apart on the very first day because Calvin's history with the men in the project was getting in the way. They were really performing for him. We realized that he couldn't be in the room with us after that first day. His role in the project changed at that point. Well, we ended up with this unusually private space. It was in the prison education building and the door closed. There's no security anywhere. When I reflect back on it I think speaking to a relative stranger such as myself opened up the possibility for something much more intimate than certainly I was expecting.
I was suddenly privy to these incredibly powerful stories where folks were willing to go into very difficult emotional spaces about their childhood, about coping in prison. A number of men told me that I was the first grown man to see them cry since they were kids. Many of the men have internalized the sense of insignificance because they would say no one's ever asked me about my childhood or why do you care? I think I was saying that a lot of them were confused as to why I wanted to do this project at all and why what they had to say might matter to anyone.
Melissa Harris-Perry: AC, can you follow up on that? All those years, spending more years in Angola than you've been alive before you were sentenced, did you start to feel that you did not matter?
AC: Yes, ma'am, because we were all given mandatory life sentences so it's no mitigation or anything from there. If we are not awarded a view that a constitutional violation is not great enough to reverse our cases or vacate our sentences, there's nobody actually interested in you and why you're there. There's nobody interested in the rehabilitation or the improvement that you made.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Marcus, why are there so many people serving life without parole in Angola?
Marcus: Louisiana does lead the country with respect to the rate at which people are sentenced to life without parole. 16% I think now of people incarcerated in Louisiana are serving that sentence compared to 4% of all incarcerated folks in the US. I think that while we are high on that metric certainly, I don't think we are unique. I think the experience of serving life without parole in Louisiana is probably very similar to serving life without parole anywhere else in the country. One of the drivers of Louisiana's life without parole population as AC was just saying, is that we have mandatory life without parole sentencing schemes for a whole range of offenses.
For second-degree murder which was AC's conviction, it's Louisiana and Pennsylvania the only two states that have a mandatory sentence for that. It goes back to the late '70s. Louisiana was not always this way. The 1970s we had very few people living life without parole sentences and through a complicated set of things that happened in the '70s, by the end of the '70s life without parole was for every life sentence. We have been growing that population ever since.
Melissa Harris-Perry: We'll have more from Arthur Carter and Marcus Kondkar about Angola prison after a quick break.
You've been hearing from my conversation with Dr. Marcus Kondkar, the co-creator of The Visiting Room Project. It features interviews with over 100 men sentenced to life without parole. We spoke with one of these men, Mr. Arthur Carter or AC. Now, AC had been sentenced to life without parole in 1989 when he was just 25 years old. In 2020, Orleans Parish elected a new district attorney named Jason Williams. DA Williams opened a new civil rights division dedicated to reexamining cases with excessive sentences. One of these cases was AC's. He told us about how he came to be released from Angola in July of this year.
AC: They found that I had did 35 years for a crime that provocation definitely existed in and the civil right division determined that my conviction was greater than it should have been. Instead of second-degree murder they vacated my conviction and gave me a guilty plea to manslaughter and they sentenced me to the highest amount of time that existed in 1988 which was 21 years.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Having served more time than that already, AC was freed. Marcus noted that the work of this civil rights division not only directly affects the men who are released but has potential ripple effects across states.
Marcus: I've been able to go back to Angola. We were permitted to go back in March. It had been a couple of years since my last visit mainly because of COVID restrictions. There was just a palpable difference in the way people were experiencing hope. Even the folks who weren't convicted in Orleans were seeing folks go home at a rate that they hadn't seen in quite a long time. It gave them hope that perhaps something like that might happen for them.
Of course, it's significant for the dozens of men who have benefited from that review process in Orleans Parish. We're in a separate project. We're following up with them and they're all doing rather well. There's no recidivism at all in that population right now. I'm hoping that that might lead to a conversation where other prosecutors and other parishes might use this as an example that you can safely reduce the prison population without affecting public safety. For some of these guys who have served so long that they've simply aged out and just are highly unlikely to get in trouble again.
Melissa Harris-Perry: To AC gaining his freedom had seemed an impossibility for 35 years really even up to the moment of his release.
AC: I just couldn't believe it. Now at this point, I'm sitting there, I'm talking to my family and friends on the phone and I'm like, I just can't believe it's about to happen. Sure enough July 7th, I had a Zoom with the court and they vacated my conviction of second-degree murder. Once I came out of that about two hours later the Department of Corrections had emergency released me because I had already done the time. It was one of the greatest relief that you could ever think about. When it happened it felt like a ton of bricks just fell off me like a burden that was just being carried by me all these many years just went away.
I just couldn't stop smiling. Nothing was frustrating, everything was cool. You had to wait a moment for different levels to be opening doors and doing whatever processing they have to do for you to be released. It was just a happy moment. Then to get to the front gate and see members of the civil rights division and the lawyer out there waiting for me, I just couldn't wait to just get in the car. It was a tremendous feeling.
Melissa Harris-Perry: The Visiting Room Project is a powerful reminder of the inhumanity of mass incarceration and the humanity of those who are trapped in it.
Marcus: It really is an invitation to come in, bear witness, and then perhaps engage in a much more meaningful conversation about whether this continues to make sense. The other thing that we then emerged from the project that we realize is also incredibly important is the ability to preserve the historical record. To me, I think in many, many years from now, I feel essential to the scholarly and human understanding of America's past to be able to hear directly from people serving the sentences, it is my hope that we will evolve from this, and one day, decades from now, we might look back with a sense of shame as to how we would just throw away people.
AC: One thing I think that the Visiting Room Project does is it takes away the stereotype. When people think about prison, you think about different groups of guys being on the yard in different divided groups, doing negativity and doing that stuff. The Visiting Room Project shows that guys don't do time like that. That's not a general category of everybody in prison how they do time. The Visiting Room gives us the opportunity to express. Personally, I work as an inmate counsel, this guy works on small engines, he's teaching other people, this guy is pastor over church that's in the penitentiary, this guy is teaching rehabilitative classes, this guy is a CPR trainer.
It is given another description on letting the world see that people that's incarcerated are not just sitting around doing negative stuff, doing idle stuff. They're productive people, they've made a change, they evolved into something special, and that person needs to be looked at again. The word that keeps jumping out in my head is proportionality. It shows that you can't just put a categorical ban on something that's big, because they have too many different circumstances, too many different reasons on why they were there in the first place, and then it's too many different situations that show what they evolved into as far as the rehabilitation or the person that they've become.
I think that once you get a chance to see this is the person that the taxpayers are still holding in prison, I think the question should resonate, why are they still there? Why are they still serving life sentences with no possibility of going home?
Melissa Harris-Perry: That's Arthur Carter, who recently regained his freedom after spending 35 years in the Louisiana State Penitentiary, and Dr. Marcus Kondkar, the Chair of Sociology at Loyola University in New Orleans, and the co-creator of the Visiting Room Project.
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