Can America fix its prison crisis?
The US has one of the world’s highest incarceration rates. Courtney Weaver and Ben Marino report from maximum security on a new strategy to tackle the issue in Louisiana.
Filmed and produced by Ben Marino. Archive by Getty, ITN and Prelinger Archives. Animation by Russ Birkett. Music by the Angola prison quartet.
Hold on. Hold on. So that you stand by me where ever that be. My soul is singing.
2,000 inmates throughout Louisiana we're scheduled for early release today.
1,900 inmates that are being released early as part of an effort to reduce incarceration.
There's actually some bipartisan agreement and a conservative side to the movement for criminal justice reform.
Lord, you're giving us the breath of life. And we thank you for that. Lord, we thank you for making a way when there was no way. Opening doors that we could not see.
My name is Ricky Joe Hawthorne. I was born November the 18, 1957. I entered prison at the age of 18. I committed my crime at the age of 17. When I left prison September 25th, 2017 I was 59 years old.
Ricky Hawthorne spent 41 years in prison. He walked out a free man after Louisiana pushed through a series of reforms that could give dozens of people like him a shot at a second chance. The Louisiana state legislature made some prisoners sentenced for second degree murder in the 1970s automatically eligible for parole.
It is one of many changes to come out of the state's criminal justice reforms. Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the US. Lawmakers hope these measures will reduce the prison population by 10% over the next decade.
The reforms are perhaps most tangible at Angola. Fenced in by the mighty Mississippi River on three sides, and dense foothills on the other, Angola is the size of Manhattan. It's called Angola because that's where the slaves who worked on the former plantation came from. For years it had the reputation of being America's worst prison, with rampant rapes, stabbings, and beatings. Today inmates are encouraged to study and learn a profession as they face re-entry into society.
This is another one of our re-entry programming vocational skills. It's outdoor power equipment. And Justin Singleton is the mentor that leads that shop.
Good morning, my name is Justin Singleton. I've been incarcerated 15 years here in Louisiana state prison at Angola. I'm serving life without parole. Life in the state of Louisiana means exactly what it sounds like.
There are about close to 5,000 lifers here in state of Louisiana, it not more. And close to 2,500 of those are first-time offenders. And so I think that's another thing that we need to look at. We always used the term give guys a second chance. You know when you're dealing with first time offenders guys are just asking for the first chance.
So just let go of all the preconceptions that you're going to be judged.
The reforms in Louisiana are being driven by an unlikely group of bedfellows - liberal activists, fiscal conservatives, business leaders, evangelicals, and former inmates.
My name's Andrew Hundley, I'm executive director of Louisiana Parole Project. When I was 15 years old, I was arrested for second degree murder. Served 19 years of a life sentence. I was the first juvenile lifer in Louisiana to be paroled.
The legislature starting to say let's take a second look at individuals, like juvenile lifers, who the evidence we have shows they're susceptible for change. They're low risk upon release. They've received all this training. How can we start being smart about our investment we've made in them?
Gene Mills is the head of an evangelical lobbying group called Louisiana Family Forum. He sat on the task force that recommended the state's prison reforms and wants to get other conservatives on board.
I think there are some that would like us to go much further than the general population, the DA's, and the sheriffs are comfortable with. And the likelihood of that happening is probably not great. But there's some common ground that deals with the doable that's in the zone of touching a large percentage of the population that was in touch with the last round of reforms. And I think it's very realistic to think if we can demonstrate success that others might be interested in talking about those opportunities for this other population, too.
For Ricky Hawthorne, at least, the reforms answered his prayers.
My name is Justin Singleton.
For thousands of men and women languishing in prison without parole -
- reforming the justice system has never been more urgent.
Courtney Weaver, Financial Times, Angola, Louisiana.
This year 42 years, and thank God I got a parole date, which is June 5th.