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Hope Against Hope

A candid portrait of the experience of obtaining clemency in Louisiana—a route to freedom now severely threatened by a new carceral governor.


When the team of filmmakers behind the Visiting Room Project approached Daryl Waters about making a short profile of him, he had already been incarcerated in Louisiana’s Angola Prison for decades. Waters had been sentenced to life without parole, a kind of death-sentence-by-incarceration that, proportionately, Louisiana uses more than any other U.S. state.

Fast forward to 2024, and Waters has now been home for a little over a year after having been granted clemency by then Louisiana governor John Edwards, who signed off on hundreds of clemency appeals. But Louisiana’s new Republican governor, Jeff Landry, elected last fall, has built his career on fearmongering about crime and is not expected to continue Edwards’s extensive use of clemency. So we asked Waters if he would write for us about the clemency process, and what Landry’s tenure will mean for folks who are supporting people still incarcerated in Louisiana. In response, he shared the following candid account of his own experiences with clemency.

—The Editors

In Louisiana, there’s not much rhyme or reason to the clemency system. Mostly, you just have to wait. So this is the story of how, mostly, I waited—but also of how, while I waited, I maintained a very active life, because just sitting around waiting wasn’t an option.

My clemency process started in 2016. My family had retained a lawyer, but it was my job to fill out all sixteen pages of the clemency application. I had to know each time I’d been arrested, what facilities I was in. These facts were available to the system, but I had to research and find that information. I had to Google a lot of things about myself. I had to write to the sheriff’s department. I had to get DA files, comb through them. It took some work. I had to have everything.

I waited about ten months before I knew that my application had even been accepted. Mind you, I was fortunate not to have a single write-up, and it still took a while. After that, I was told that there would be an investigation. There was an officer assigned to me who would call and ask questions about the high school I attended, any history of drug addiction—all the things I had indicated on the application, basically. I don’t remember how many months that process took.

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Then I had to wait for a date for a hearing, and that took two years. The way it works, when you receive the hearing date, it’s scheduled for four to six months away. So that was another wait. I barely heard from my attorney from the time my application was accepted until the hearing. During that time, we may have exchanged two or three emails. That was it. But finally, two weeks before the hearing, we met and talked about a strategy. My family got together and came to the clemency hearing.

Once I was approved by the clemency board, I had to wait for the DOC to do some paperwork to process me, and then I had to wait to see whether the governor would sign it. My file sat on his desk for three years and three and a half months. During that time I had to be extra careful, very meticulous about everything. Had I received even one write-up, my file would have been pulled off the governor’s desk, and I would have had to start that process over again.

I received the governor’s signature in 2022, but then I still had to wait for a parole hearing date. That took close to a year. I made parole on November 29, 2022. I was released the next day to the Louisiana Parole Project, a transition program. My freedom-versary is November 30.

I’m truly grateful that there was a clemency process available to me and a governor willing to give second chances. But there are people still waiting, and whose files sat on the desk much longer than mine did. Although Governor Edwards’s use of clemency was historic and brought so much hope to those of us on the inside, there are still people waiting to be liberated. I personally know about eighty or ninety guys whose files had been on his desk, fully approved, just awaiting his signature. I know a guy who has been waiting over six years. Some guys had been on the desk during the previous governor’s administration and remained there, unsigned, and in Louisiana most governors won’t just accept files approved by the previous governor’s clemency board, so those folks had to reapply and go through the whole process again. The new governor has the option to put you at the head of the line and give you a hearing, but I don’t recall that ever happening to anyone. All the people Governor Edwards didn’t sign, they now have to start over.

The author’s first few days after coming home. (Courtesy images.)

There’s a guy we know at the Visiting Room Project who went through everything I did, and was scheduled in the late fall to have a hearing at the pardon board and would’ve surely been approved. But the day of the hearing, two of the pardon board members got sick and the meeting was canceled. There wasn’t enough time to reschedule and still pass the case through to Governor Edwards before he left. Now he has to wait years to apply again.

Being in prison is really like being behind a wall. You walk around and no matter what you do, no matter how good it is, you have to wonder: Does anyone care? Does it matter? You have to do it for yourself. I always said to other guys, the only thing that matters is that we build our character while we’re there. The only thing that matters is that we invest ourselves in the lives of others while we’re here. They would say, well, we’re ready to go. And I say, well, you need to outgrow this place. It’s only 18,000 acres. You need to get so big where you no longer fit.

All those years I was waiting, I kept myself super busy. I mean, it was crazy every day for twenty-seven or twenty-eight years. I was a lead mentor, which meant that I was responsible for other mentors and had my own mentees. I was the education supervisor, so I had to help my ten tutors teach their classes, and I co-headed the largest church, with 200 members. My days would be from 3:00 in the morning until, say, 9:30 or 10:00 o’clock at night, sometimes later. Some days I would have to take a nap during the day because I might not get but two or three hours of sleep.

On top of that, I was also a major motivational speaker at Angola. I used to speak in different cities in Louisiana, at different universities, recreational centers, courts. Then the prison started having riverboat tours where wealthy people would come from Africa, England, France, the Netherlands, Germany—I’ve met people from all over. I would do about three of those tours a day. I would meet them at the chapel, stand before them, and give them a little history of Angola. They were very interested in knowing what my day was like. They would want to know: How do you cope? What about your family? What are the high points? What are the low points? Tell us what you see every day and what you experience. So that’s what I would do.

I decided, during those years, to just be other-minded. I found that in these dire circumstances, what really brought me a measure of joy was just to look around and minister to people’s despair—to say, you know what, I’m just going to be concerned about other people because that’s within my power. I might not be able to do much about my situation. But I can help them in their situation right here, right now. And that’s how I did my time.

It was quite difficult at times during those years to walk up and down the walk, to grow in different dimensions and realize that the growth was contained on those 18,000 acres of Angola. To have to delve deeply within myself to find hopeful words for family members and supporters. I had to hope against hope that it would happen one day.

Now that I’m out, I have ambivalent feelings. I don’t feel like I’m totally free because there are so many good men and women who are still inside. Therefore, a part of me is there. Part of my heart is there.

But it means everything to be free, to be able to continue this work that started on the inside. It is my sincere prayer that although Governor Landry seems opposed to clemency, that somewhere inside of him he would find the compassion to not put a halt to everything. There’s information about the recidivism rate among clemency recipients, and it’s very, very low. I mean, he can’t deny data. We have success stories about men and women who are rebuilding their communities in tangible ways and making real, real differences. The grandpas now who are out, who are tending to their grandkids and helping with decision-making at homes and in the community; guys helping the elderly, going to churches, being very charitable on many fronts. You have guys who are now homeowners. We’re all paying taxes. You have men who are working collaboratively in communities, and they’re doing well on their jobs. They’re helping to mentor the younger men and women in their communities.

You would be amazed. I know I am amazed at how well guys are doing. Matter of fact, my family said, “Man, it almost seems like you have to go to prison in order to do well.” I said, no, that’s not the case. I say, we already had this drive, we brought it to prison with us. We used everything we had available to us. In addition to any programming, we also taught each other. It was like, I’m interested in this. Who knows how to do it? Who knows anything about it? If everyone knows a little, let’s just share. We don’t attribute our success to the system—we became successful despite the inherent difficulties.

I think about most of us who are home now, who actually walked upright at Angola for more than twenty years, some more than forty years. Some guys had rough starts when they were first incarcerated, but they got past that, and they had been leading productive lives at the prison for quite a while, for more than two decades, at least. And they did that without any hope of release, for the most part, because for decades in Louisiana there was basically no clemency; no one was leaving. The guys who are there now, they’re certainly aware that, unfortunately, they’re going to have to wait a while for another window to open. Until that time, they will—and we will—just have to encourage one another.

More than ever before, we’re going to have to be a source of inspiration for them. We’re going to have to encourage them. The last time I was at Angola, what I saw was utter despair. When they looked into my face, they didn’t have to utter a word. I knew. I knew it was difficult for them to just continue to live. And, you know, those of us who’ve been able to come home, we try to encourage them with our lives, but we have to be careful. Sometimes that hurts them as well, to know how well we’re doing. How we get to travel and eat a decent meal and spend time with family when they don’t. It’s like walking a tightrope, a balancing act. I want to encourage them, but I don’t want to rub my good life in their faces.

I’ve met some of the best men ever right there in that place, and I would have to ask them to tell me their story. Make it make sense. How did you get here? Because you are much bigger than this place. So I will continue to do the work, and we will find a way. We will do what it takes. We are the type who can dig through a wall with a plastic spoon. A steel wall. We’re gonna find a way.

Header image: msppmoore/Flickr/Inquest