The day after Louisiana’s November election, Norris Henderson went back to the prison where he spent 27 years of his life. He visits frequently—it’s where he goes to stay connected with the people he fights for from the outside.

The Republican gubernatorial candidate, Eddie Rispone, spent months painting Democratic  Gov. John Bel Edwards as too soft on crime to govern the Deep South state, despite Louisiana having the highest rate of incarceration in the United States. Rispone’s “tough on crime” approach wasn’t enough to propel him into the governor’s office—Edwards was reelected with a narrow 51% of the vote.

For Henderson, returning to the Louisiana State Penitentiary is usually “bittersweet.” The prison, a former plantation, has been nicknamed “Angola,”  after the African nation many of the people once enslaved there called home. But on that day, he said, “everybody was just ecstatic.” For criminal justice reformers, Edwards’ reelection raised the hope of victory in critical races in 2020 where candidates are running on platforms pledging to reverse mass incarceration.

“Everyone was interested in that election and the importance of it,” Henderson said.

Beginning while he was still incarcerated at Angola, and in the 16 years since his release, Henderson has been fighting to change the circumstances that have made Louisiana, and the United States, outliers in incarceration. The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world, where approximately 655 people for every 100,000 are behind bars. Louisiana incarcerates 760 per 100,000 people.

Following uprisings at prisons across the country in the ‘80s, Henderson said outsiders were speculating that Angola could be the site for the “worst prison riot in the history of the country,” given its reputation as “the bloodiest prison in the world.” Even after decades of reform, the prison still faces lawsuits alleging medical neglect.

“You could set the place on fire, all 18,000 acres,” Henderson said. But instead, “we opted to change our circumstances.”

He and others who were inside with him developed what they called the Angola Special Civics Project. They spent months in the prison law library researching sentences in 10 different states to find how punishment compared to Louisiana’s categories for life without parole sentencing. Their research found that Louisiana was an outlier in all cases.

Henderson said they found that with parole eligibility programs in other states, people’s sentences in other states ended up much shorter for the same crimes than in Louisiana, where there was no parole eligibility for anyone serving a life sentence.

The categories for a life sentence then included first-degree murder, second-degree murder, aggravated burglary, aggravated kidnapping, being a habitual offender, and drug dealing. The latter charge carried a life sentence for heroin and cocaine.

“In most places, the ceiling was 15 years, and that was for all the same crimes that we had six categories of life in Louisiana,” Henderson said. “Of those six categories, we were the worst of every one of them.” 

The coalition drafted a bill that was later introduced in the state legislature by Louisiana Rep. Naomi White Warren, and it eventually became known as the 2045 law. The law created parole eligibility after 20 years of incarceration after reaching the age of 45. “Lifers,” people serving life sentences, were excluded.

Even though Henderson was serving a life sentence for a second-degree murder he maintains he didn’t commit, he said he never believed he would spend his life there. Before truth in sentencing laws—applied retroactively—took away the possibility of parole, he could have been eligible after 20 years. Then, the law changed to 40 years, then it changed to indefinitely. Henderson said in 2003, after he’d served 27 years, a judge ruled he should be given that relief.

“There was never a time when I thought I wasn’t gonna get out. I had a very flimsy case,” Henderson said.

When he walked out of the courtroom in 2003, “that moment was huge…that was the moment I had been waiting for.”

Henderson said the years he spent incarcerated and becoming an advocate for prisoners’ rights prepared him to work on all the things he’s accomplished since his release. He is now the founder and director of Voice of the Experienced (“VOTE”), a grassroots organization comprised of formerly incarcerated people and their loved ones, with four chapters across Louisiana.

VOTE has been active in campaigns aimed at restoring voting rights, securing housing and employment for formerly incarcerated people, and advocating for sentencing, bail, and parole reforms. They’ve created a transitional house and health clinic and have organized around “ban the box” campaigns in the state. This Fall, VOTE co-hosted a historic town hall in Pennsylvania featuring presidential candidates who had to answer questions about criminal justice reforms to an audience of formerly incarcerated leaders. Henderson plans to build on the organization’s momentum in in 2020.

“We’re working to finish the job we started,” Henderson said. ”We didn’t have the town hall just to make a splash. The town hall was to send a message. It’s time for people to recognize that those who are closest to the problem are closest to the solutions.”

It’s been nearly two decades since his release in 2003, but Henderson still sees familiar faces on his visits to Angola. “When I go I get a chance to see why I’m still in this fight,” he said.

“There are folks there that was there when I came out, and they are still there, so something is wrong,” Henderson said. “The hope is there, people see the work that people are putting in to change their lives. When I go, I’m kind of like that beacon that folks look to and say, ‘Oh, he’s gonna help.’”

Alex Arriaga is a reporter and writer based in Chicago. Her work focuses on how people engage and participate in democracy and how community reporting can empower that participation in different ways....