Incarcerated People With Life Sentences Get a Chance to Tell Their Stories : Consider This from NPR More than 55,000 people in the U.S. are serving life sentences without the possibility of parole, according to research from The Sentencing Project.

Behind bars, they are largely unseen and unheard.

The Visiting Room Project is an effort to change that. It's a collection of first-person testimonials of people who are serving life sentences.

We hear inmates tell their stories and talk with Calvin Duncan, co-creator the project, which invites the public to sit face-to-face with people who have no chance of parole.

In participating regions, you'll also hear a local news segment to help you make sense of what's going on in your community.

Email us at considerthis@npr.org.

The Stories Of People Serving Life Sentences, In Their Own Words

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FRANK GREEN: If I happen to die here in prison - that's not something that I want, but I have to think about and take under consideration I took another human's life.

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Frank Green was just 20 years old when he killed a young man he went to school with. He was convicted of second-degree murder in 1989 and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.

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GREEN: He still was somebody's son. His mom, her name was Diane Hall (ph). I wish I could trade places with him. If I could go back in time and redo that, that would have never happened. It shouldn't have happened.

SUMMERS: Green has been serving his time in Angola, the Louisiana State Penitentiary. He says that other men in his family, like his father, also wound up in the prison system.

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GREEN: You know I had - it's sad. I had my two uncles here and my dad. And I'm like, this is where all the family male subjects supposed to come and go through. You know, I mean, when that cycle going to break?

SUMMERS: When Green got to Angola, he wanted to find some change, make a difference. In group therapy, he worked as one of the group coordinators.

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GREEN: We have a thing we call a hot seat, meaning you get to tell your life story on that seat. And we're going to sit around it. Like, the chairs going to be around it, you're going to be right where I'm at. And you going to be having everything thrown at you, and you got to answer. You can't get a attitude. You can't get mad. There's no fighting. If you fighting, you're getting out the club. I mean, it was - they ask you the questions. They'll tear you apart, but then they'll try to build you back up.

SUMMERS: Frank Green is one of more than 100 people telling their stories as a part of the Visiting Room Project. It's a collection of intimate interviews of people serving life without the possibility of parole.

CALVIN DUNCAN: We not advocating for any particular thing. We just thought that, as opposed to just allowing society just to see the data that exists, how about allowing society to see the story behind the individuals that the data represents?

SUMMERS: Calvin Duncan co-created the Visiting Room Project alongside Marcus Kondkar. This project for Duncan was deeply personal.

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

SUMMERS: 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 got out of prison. Still, there are dozens of thousands of people serving life sentences.

ASHLEY NELLIS: There are 55,000 people serving life without parole around the United States.

SUMMERS: Ashley Nellis is a senior research analyst at the Sentencing Project. It's a research and advocacy center working to reduce incarceration in the U.S.

NELLIS: We've always had life sentences as a possibility since the beginning of American democracy.

SUMMERS: Nellis says a life sentence didn't always mean spending the rest of your days in prison. Back in the '70s and '80s, she says there was still a possibility for an individual to be granted clemency, typically after 10 years. Today is very different.

NELLIS: We continue to see a rise in life without the possibility of parole as of 2020 and an overall 66% rise since we first started counting, which was in 2003.

SUMMERS: The Visiting Room Project has brought incarcerated people out of the dark and into the light for the public to hear their stories - people like Daryl Waters, who's serving a life sentence for second-degree murder.

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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.

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SUMMERS: CONSIDER THIS - tens of thousands of Americans are serving life sentences without the possibility of parole. Behind bars, they are largely unseen and unheard. A new project aims to change that by bringing their voices to the public.

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SUMMERS: From NPR, I'm Juana Summers. It's Thursday, September 22.

It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. The Visiting Room Project focuses on incarcerated individuals in Louisiana.

NELLIS: Louisiana is a state, of course, that stands out because it has so many people serving life without parole.

SUMMERS: Ashley Nellis from the Sentencing Project again. Alabama, California, Michigan - these states have some of the largest numbers of people serving life without parole. And just as Black men are overrepresented in the prison system, Nellis says they also disproportionately receive life sentences.

NELLIS: Two-thirds of the people serving life are people of color, and 1 in 5 Black men in prison has a life sentence.

SUMMERS: Women are a small fraction of those who are serving life without parole, just 3%. Nellis says most of the people serving these sentences are over 50, but many of them were handed those life sentences at a very young age. Proponents of life without parole say that these sentences will deter people from committing crimes, but Nellis says the research does not back that up.

NELLIS: One of the things that is known through the literature is that apprehension is much more predictable in terms of deterring than punishment. So if somebody knows that they will be caught, they're much less likely to commit the crime in the first place.

SUMMERS: Calvin Duncan, co-creator of the Visiting Room Project, says this collection of first-person testimonials gave inmates an opportunity to tell their stories in their own words - stories about their childhood or what led them to prison and what life is actually like when serving a life sentence.

DUNCAN: Nobody had knew the trauma that they had experienced.

SUMMERS: The project gives people the opportunity to be seen. And when I spoke with Duncan 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 on 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.

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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 sent to 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.

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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 - just wrongfully convicted. But those that make mistakes because of drug addiction and other trauma that they experience 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 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 that 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 view the project online at visitingroomproject.org, and there will also be a link in our show notes.

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SUMMERS: It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. I'm Juana Summers.

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