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What it's like serving a life sentence in prison with no chance of release

From left, Gordon Newman, Frank Green, Sammie Robinson and Terry Pierce open up about life in the Angola Louisiana State Penitentiary.
The Visiting Room Project
From left, Gordon Newman, Frank Green, Sammie Robinson and Terry Pierce open up about life in the Angola Louisiana State Penitentiary.

When Calvin Duncan was 19 years old, 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 from other inmates: "That they was innocent, that they didn't commit the crimes that they was in prison for."

Not everyone was legally innocent, of course. Duncan says a lot of people were led astray by drug problems or poverty. And they made mistakes. Life-changing mistakes.

"They went down that path, you know, committing petty crimes. And then in some cases, it escalated into a 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 at Angola, the Louisiana State Penitentiary, the project contains 100 interviews with prisoners serving life sentences without parole, and allows the public to watch and listen to the men tell their stories in their own words.

The definition of a "life sentence" has changed

When Duncan reflects on his time inside, the thing that disturbs him most is how young some of his fellow inmates were when they landed in jail. He says so many of them hadn't developed emotionally or mentally enough to fully understand what was happening.

Duncan, like many of those young men, was supposed to serve a life sentence with no 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 get to know them like he did. That's what led him to meet Marcus Kondkar — a sociologist professor at Loyola University in New Orleans — whom he co-founded The Visiting Room Project with.

"He would share with me about what the data showed, how many people was serving life in prison without parole in Louisiana," Duncan says. "But what the data didn't show was who those men were."

Duncan had a special insight into that. He'd spent his time in Angola becoming a lawyer. So he heard a lot of personal stories from his fellow inmates who came to him for legal advice.

"For 23 years, my job was to assess people sentenced to death and also people that was wrongfully convicted," he says. "I saw them mature into productive men. And they became the mentors of the prison — the cooks, the horsemen. They became the preachers; in some cases, like myself, became lawyers, jailhouse lawyers."

Duncan's success story of getting released is rare, especially in the state of Louisiana. The chances of getting a life sentence commuted or overturned there are barely 1%. And Duncan's former prison, Angola, has a significant role in the state's history of prison policy.

Life sentences weren't 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. People serving life sentences could seek a commutation after 15 years. In 1926, Louisiana shortened that time to 10 years and six months to save costs at Angola. This became known as the "10/6 law," under which the state released more than 90% of people with life sentences through commutations. This was common in 13 other states at the time, too.

That all changed in 1972, after the Supreme Court temporarily struck down the death penalty. All prisoners on Louisiana's death row had their sentences converted to life. And after deciding that the life sentence itself needed to be harsher for these prisoners, Louisiana started establishing higher year minimums before parole eligibility. The state started with a 20 year minimum in 1973, raised it to 40 years a few years later — before ultimately abolishing parole eligibility altogether for anyone with a life sentence.

Now, a life sentence means exactly that: permanent imprisonment. Louisiana's prisons today hold thousands of people with life sentences and no possibility of parole. 73% of all inmates serving life sentences at Angola are Black. Many are older than 50. The aging population meant many prisons needed to establish hospice programs, mainly staffed by fellow prisoners who are also serving life sentences.

"A lot of us are volunteering to the hospice program," says Terry Pierce, one of the interviewees in The Visiting Room Project. "We're nursing people who, just like us, came here young and are dying in prison. Hospice gives us a glimpse of what we are headed for."

Angola's first prison cemetery is full. They built a second one but that's almost at capacity, too.

Duncan wants people to see prisoners as more than a number

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

"Nobody had knew the trauma that they had experienced," he says. "Allowing them to have space for which they could tell they story — not the story about their crime, but who they are now — The Visiting Room gave them that opportunity."

"Because when you're in prison, one of the things you don't do, you don't show weakness. You grow up as a kid not even being able to express yourself. To finally get a chance to say out loud this is who they are, that was the thing that they was most grateful about, is being given that opportunity."

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 more than 20 years.

"We should get to know the person that the data represents," he says. "I would hope that people realize that young people make mistakes. In a lot of cases, they make terrible mistakes. Once they brains begin to develop, they become productive people, people that we would become proud of."

"[I would like people] to say, 'I would like Calvin to be my next door neighbor. I would like Calvin to be sitting in a class — in a law school class.' So that's what I would like the public to see, is what happens when our children grow up."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Lauren Hodges is an associate producer for All Things Considered. She joined the show in 2018 after seven years in the NPR newsroom as a producer and editor. She doesn't mind that you used her pens, she just likes them a certain way and asks that you put them back the way you found them, thanks. Despite years working on interviews with notable politicians, public figures, and celebrities for NPR, Hodges completely lost her cool when she heard RuPaul's voice and was told to sit quietly in a corner during the rest of the interview. She promises to do better next time.