Until 1973, most people sentenced to life in prison in Louisiana went home after 10 years and six months of good behavior. But after the U.S. Supreme Court temporarily halted the death penalty, the state decided to make life sentences more punitive. First, the state legislature required life sentences for murder to carry a 20-year minimum in prison, which was later amended to 40 years. In 1979, lawmakers took away parole eligibility for anyone with a life sentence.
As a result, many people who went to prison before 1973, expecting to come home after 10½ years, wound up trapped, facing true life sentences after the state changed the rules. The overwhelming majority of those who are still alive are Black.
Since last year, several so-called 10/6 lifers have been released from prison, largely the result of Orleans Parish District Attorney Jason Williams asking the courts to resentence them to time served. But that effort applies only to the 18 people who were convicted in Orleans Parish.
Now there is a bipartisan push in the Louisiana State Legislature to provide relief to 10/6 lifers in other parts of the state.
Earlier this month, two state lawmakers introduced separate bills that would provide parole eligibility to 10/6 lifers. One, introduced by state Sen. Regina Barrow (D), would provide immediate parole eligibility to anyone facing a life sentence for a crime committed before July 2, 1973. The other, introduced by Sen. Franklin Foil (R), would only provide parole eligibility to 10/6 lifers who pleaded guilty, excluding those who went to trial and were convicted.
Foil’s bill would provide a pathway to release for fewer than 20 of the roughly 45 10/6 lifers who are still incarcerated outside of Orleans Parish, estimated Andrew Hundley, the executive director of the Louisiana Parole Project, which has provided reentry support to recently released 10/6 lifers.
“These bills affect the men who have been incarcerated longer than anyone else in Louisiana,” said Hundley, who supports Barrow’s bill. “They are in their 70s and 80s and have served 50 or more years. We have to ask ourselves: What’s the value to public safety for their continued incarceration?”
Last year, HuffPost met with several 10/6 lifers shortly after they left the Louisiana State Penitentiary, better known as Angola. Most of them had spent more than 50 years in prison despite being told they would likely be released after 10 years and six months. They spoke about the joy of leaving prison — and the challenges of adapting to a world so different from the one they lived in when they were last free.
Some also spoke of the ways they still didn’t feel entirely free. Those who were convicted of or pleaded guilty to sex offenses were forced to register as sex offenders, even though the registry didn’t exist at the time of their crime. They described their shame at having to register and their fear of accidentally violating the rules and returning to Angola.
One 10/6 lifer, Willie Ingram, gave the cops a fake name when he was arrested in 1970, a name he continued to use at Angola. When he got out last year, he had been locked up for so long that it took months for staff at the Parole Project to track down records verifying his real identity so that he could get an ID card and apply for government assistance.
Another 10/6 lifer, Louis Mitchell, pleaded guilty to crimes he says he did not commit because he was afraid of being sentenced to death by an all-white jury. Mitchell, who is Black, was accused of raping two white women, including one who was his girlfriend at the time. A medical examination of his girlfriend did “not reveal any evidence of recent trauma,” and the other woman did not identify Mitchell as her attacker even when the police specifically asked her if he was the perpetrator. Mitchell wanted to fight the charges, but prosecutors warned his lawyer that if he went to trial, he would likely be convicted and executed.
Foil, whose bill would provide parole eligibility only to 10/6 lifers who had pleaded guilty, did not respond to a request for an interview, but it’s likely that his bill was written with people like Mitchell in mind. But if Foil is trying to limit relief only to people who are innocent of the crimes they went to prison for, his approach is flawed. It’s possible that some people pleaded guilty because they did commit the crimes they were accused of — and it’s highly likely that some people who went to trial were convicted despite being innocent. Mitchell’s own story shows how commonly understood it was in Louisiana at the time that Black defendants didn’t have a chance of a fair trial.
Moreover, even the 10/6 lifers who did commit the crimes they were accused of have now done decades more time in prison than the state told them they would do. “These are clear broken promises,” Williams, the Orleans Parish district attorney, said in an interview last year.
When the 10/6 lifers first got to prison, most of them received a rap sheet that showed the date at which they would have completed 10 year and six months and been eligible for release. After state law changed, some were asked to hand over their old rap sheets in exchange for modified paperwork. But many held on to their original paperwork — proof of the promise the state had made. Mitchell is friends with a 10/6 lifer who is outside of Wililams’ jurisdiction and is still at Angola.
Mitchell is holding on to a copy of his friend’s rap sheet, which shows he was supposed to be eligible for release on Dec. 20, 1983.