Louisiana sentences people to life without parole at a higher rate than anywhere else in the United States, itself a global outlier in the routine use of this extreme punishment. Life without parole sentences, and even virtual life sentences, were relatively rare in the United States until the 1970s. In Louisiana, the so-called “10/6 law” enacted in 1926 typically equated a life sentence with ten years and six months. The change was set in motion in 1972 when the Supreme Court temporarily struck down the death penalty in Furman v. Georgia. Louisiana lawmakers responded by increasing the minimum number of years required before clemency considerations to twenty years, then to forty years, and in 1979 abolished parole entirely for all life sentences. There are now more than 4,000 people serving life without parole in the state.
In 2017 I was granted access to the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola to interview people serving life sentences for an ethnographic oral history project. When I began The Visiting Room Project—now an online archive of more than a hundred recorded interviews, all free to stream—I had no way of knowing just how far-reaching and transformative the experience would be.
I spend a lot of time analyzing data on incarceration, sentencing patterns, and recidivism, with a focus on life without parole sentences. In the face of recent declining incarceration rates in the United States, and despite remarkably low recidivism rates for folks released from serving life sentences, the proportion of incarcerated folks sentenced to die in prison has continued to grow. In the past three decades, the life without parole population in the United States has more than quadrupled.
As a sociologist, I am trained to think about social life through a structural lens, from a distance conducive to maintaining objectivity, so I generally prefer sticking to quantitative data. That changed about a decade ago when I met Calvin Duncan, who served twenty-eight and a halfyears on a life without parole sentence before winning his freedom with help from the Innocence Project New Orleans. Calvin spent most of that time at Angola as a so-called “jailhouse lawyer,” providing legal advice to other incarcerated folks, and he knew all the people there serving life sentences. He grew up with them and witnessed their transformation over the years as they all aged.
As Calvin and I talked, we realized that people don’t know about the change that individuals go through behind prison walls. One of the consequences of designing prisons to keep people in is that they also keep the rest of us out; thus the people in them remain abstractions to us. We are skeptical of transformation and rehabilitation because we don’t see it. We focus on the crime of conviction and have trouble moving past it. As Daryl Waters explains in his interview: “All we know is that he was what we regarded as a ‘thug’ on the street twenty-four, twenty-five years ago. So we’re angry at that person, not realizing that that person no longer exists.”
If we want to understand the experiences of those we have “othered” and cast out of society, make empathetic connections with them, and be reminded of our common humanity, we must visit with them, hear their stories, and see them as whole human beings. In the absence of such encounters, they remain data points, we remain trapped in our own set of assumptions and prejudices, and our worldview contracts. Calvin and I realized we had to find a way to get into the prison and get these stories out. We designed The Visiting Room Project initially for an academic audience, and, after much effort, I was given permission by the Louisiana Department of Corrections to record interviews at Angola, using a private classroom in the prison’s education building as a makeshift studio.
While Louisiana is an outlier in the use of life without parole sentences, the men at Angola are representative of the 55,000 Americans currently serving life without parole across this country. The men I spoke to were all convicted of murder, which in Louisiana carries a mandatory life without parole sentence. They were disproportionately Black. All were convicted when they were very young, and all had served at least twenty years in prison.
During the first week of interviews, I realized that I was encountering something more intimate and profound than I had anticipated. I was suddenly privy to extraordinary stories of transformation and struggle that the public would never ordinarily get to see or hear. Right away, I was struck by the openness and emotional intensity of our conversations. Several of the men told me that I was the first person to see their tears since they were children. There were stark reminders of how their invisibility and feelings of insignificance have been normalized. Most were confused as to why I wanted to learn about them—why anyone would be interested in them—and why what they had to say might matter. Many of the men told me things they never share with their loved ones; they have learned to avoid emotionally difficult conversations to spare their families worry. Something about meeting a relative stranger and being asked about their lives allowed them to share memories and talk about things they would otherwise keep hidden away.
In March 2022, five years after recording the first interview, a few of us on our small project team returned to the prison to screen the project for all of the men who had contributed to it. Watching the contributors watch their own testimonies and hear each other’s words was powerful. Men who had known each other for decades told us they learned things about each other that they had never known. At the end of the screening, the interview subjects gave us names and telephone numbers of more than 250 friends and family, asking that we share the project with them. We left that day with the realization that, in some ways, the real work of the project was just beginning.
Now that the interviews have started to reach the outside world, they’re having powerful and unexpected consequences.
In some cases, the interviews have helped reunite families after decades of separation, as in the case of Archie Tyner, whose sister showed his interview to his estranged twin sons. They then reached out to Archie for the first time in thirty-one years. Other interviews have helped victims’ families learn more about the men responsible for their loved ones’ murders, which has led to healing and forgiveness, as in the case of Charles Amos. And in almost all cases, they have allowed the men who shared their stories to feel like people can see them more fully. For example, Jarrod Lanclow told me that his interview gave his family the first glimpse of the man he had become.
Perhaps the most unexpected development of all is that some of our contributors have come home since I interviewed them. In 2021 a new district attorney, Jason Williams, was sworn into office in New Orleans with a promise to review excessive sentences and wrongful convictions. As of this writing, three of the men interviewed in the project have been exonerated; an additional eight have had their murder convictions downgraded to manslaughter and they were released for time served. When we sat together just a few years earlier, we could not imagine that this might happen: the permanence of their sentences loomed over all our conversations. But we are now in the extraordinary situation where they have become full partners in the local and national community engagement events being organized around the project.
The Visiting Room Project is an invitation to the public to sit face to face with people serving life without the possibility of parole—to hear their stories in their own words. As Calvin told me when we first dreamed up the project, “We just want to be seen for who we are.” Of course, this is true for all human beings, but how much more so for the thousands we’ve locked away to die in our prisons, never to be seen or heard from again.
Image: Anastasiya Chervinska/Unsplash