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Without hope for parole, prisoners with life sentences tell their own stories

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DARYL WATERS: I just pray that people can realize that there are everyday people behind these walls who love, who get sad, who hurt, who are happy, who have dreams. You can lock us up, but you can't stop us from being human beings.

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

That's the voice of Daryl Waters. He's serving a life sentence for second degree murder at Louisiana State Penitentiary and has been incarcerated for close to 30 years. His voice, his story is part of The Visiting Room Project, a collection of intimate interviews of people serving life without the possibility of parole.

CALVIN DUNCAN: When I was 19 years old, I got arrested for a murder that I didn't commit.

SUMMERS: And that is Calvin Duncan, who co-created the project with Marcus Kondkar. For him, it was deeply personal. In 1985, Duncan was convicted of murder and sentenced to life.

DUNCAN: I was in Angola for 24 years. And for 23 years, my job was to assess people sentenced to death and also people that was wrongfully convicted. My job was actually being the jailhouse lawyer.

SUMMERS: Working with the Innocence Project, Duncan was ultimately exonerated. And when I spoke with him about the project, he told me about the stories he heard when he was locked up from his fellow inmates.

DUNCAN: A lot of the stories that I was hearing from guys that I was trying to help was that they was innocent, that they didn't commit the crimes that they was in prison for. And some of the other stories that I was hearing was guys that had got involved in drugs. They went down that path, you know, committing petty crimes. And then in some cases, it escalated into a murder that they regret. 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.

SUMMERS: You mentioned something, and I just think it bears repeating. Most of the faces that we see in this project, most of the people that we hear from, they are Black men, many of whom were incarcerated when they were really, really young. What did you want people to learn about these men that we meet in The Visiting Room Project?

DUNCAN: So when I got out of prison in 2011, I met Marcus. Marcus is the sociologist professor at LSU University in New Orleans. He would share with me about what the data showed, how many people was serving life in prison without parole in Louisiana. But what the data didn't show was who those men were.

SUMMERS: One of the interviews that you've collected was with Sammy Robinson, who was 81 years old at the time he spoke and had been incarcerated since 1953.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SAMMY ROBINSON: Like I said, I've been here all my life. I ain't never really had a chance to get out.

SUMMERS: He died in 2019, after serving 66 years in prison. I just have to say, it was painful listening to him and watching him talk about some of the violence that he experienced while he was serving time. Were there a lot of stories like that?

DUNCAN: Yes. Sammy's story was one of many. He was 15 years old when he was arrested. And he was at Angola. At that time, Angola was the most violent prison in America. And he was only a kid. They sent him there and just never gave him a chance. And growing up in Angola, I would hear stories not just from Sammy, but from other guys that went there when they was young. They had to experience all of the violence, the trauma, and in some cases, other things happened while they was in prison. And then when the prison changed, Sammy had already became an adult, and he had changed, but he had to spend the rest of his life in prison despite that change. And the outside world never saw the transformation, how Sammy had touched young people lives and how he mentored, nurtured young men that was coming into prison to be productive men.

SUMMERS: You know, in the introduction video to this project, Terry Pierce, who narrates it, says something that has really stuck in my mind. It's when he talked about the hospice program that Angola put together and how when he first got there, there was just one cemetery. Now there are two, and the second one is almost full.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TERRY PIERCE: A lot of us are volunteering to the hospice program, 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.

SUMMERS: It just reminds me that most of the men that a viewer meets in this project, they're never going to leave Angola.

DUNCAN: Yes. And that is a tragedy of our criminal justice system. They don't take into account how young men make terrible mistakes in some instances. Some don't make mistakes at all that's wrongfully convicted. But those that make mistakes because of drug addiction and other trauma that they experienced that didn't get treated for, they don't take in account that at that period of time when a person mind mature. The experts have said that at some point, men start maturing at 23. And like what Terry had said in the interview is that, despite the fact that we all change, we will still die in prison. And that is the tragedy.

SUMMERS: Did you ever have the opportunity to ask any of these people who were interviewed who are all serving life without possibility of parole, did you ever have the chance to talk with them about what they gained in sharing their stories like this, or why it was important for them to sit down for these interviews?

DUNCAN: One of the things that I heard over and over and over from the guys that was interviewed was first they thanked me, they thanked Marcus because that was the first opportunity for some of them that they ever was able to tell their story. Nobody had knew the trauma that they had experienced. Allowing them to have space for which that 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.

SUMMERS: What do you hope that people take away as they watch these interviews and as they meet these men?

DUNCAN: What I hope that people get from these interviews is that we just shouldn't just rely on data. We should get to know the person that the data represents. 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, that they become productive people, people that we would become proud of, to say that 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.

SUMMERS: That's Calvin Duncan, co-creator of The Visiting Room Project. You can find it online at visitingroomproject.org. Calvin, thank you so much.

DUNCAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
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.