They Know What They Did. They’d Like You to Know Who They’ve Become.


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They Know What They Did. They’d Like You to Know Who They’ve Become.

Aug. 1, 2023, 5:00 a.m. ET
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Video by Marcus Kondkar, Calvin Duncan and Alexander Stockton

Text by Jesse Wegman

Mr. Kondkar is the chair of the sociology department at Loyola University New Orleans, where he researches incarceration and sentencing. Mr. Duncan is an expert in post-conviction law and had previously been incarcerated at Angola prison in Louisiana, and was exonerated in 2021. Mr. Stockton is a producer with Opinion Video. Mr. Wegman is a member of the editorial board.

Listening to the men in the short Opinion Video above is like encountering visitors from another planet. They are serving life sentences at Angola prison, in rural Louisiana, with little to no hope for release. Many are elderly; they have not seen the outside world, or their families, for decades.

They do not face execution, but they have been sentenced to death all the same, their lives spooling out endlessly with little hope for redemption, knowing they will very likely die within the prison walls.

The men are among the thousands in Louisiana — and more than 50,000 nationwide — locked up for life without parole. It costs roughly $70,000 a year for each aging inmate, and this film asks whether the best way to spend billions of taxpayer dollars is on vengeance. The point is not to diminish the severity of the crimes that put these men behind bars. As many of them acknowledge, they have been rightly punished for a long time. But, ask yourself as you watch the video, how long is long enough?

That’s a question more and more states are asking. In recent years, a number of states, including Maryland, South Carolina and New Mexico, have debated changing their laws to give those serving lengthy sentences a chance at freedom. Several states have already enacted so-called second-look laws, which permit reconsideration of sentences for inmates who have reached a certain age or been incarcerated for a minimum term or whose sentences no longer serve a valid legislative purpose. At the federal level, the bipartisan U.S. Sentencing Commission in January issued draft guidelines that would give judges more flexibility to consider releasing elderly inmates.

None of us want to be defined solely by the person we were in our youth, or by the worst thing we ever did. The men serving life without parole feel the same way.

Marcus Kondkar and Calvin Duncan are the creators of the Visiting Room Project, which tells the stories of men serving life sentences in Angola prison.

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