If you’re a criminal defense attorney – especially one who deals with drug-related offenses – chances are you’ve had the unfortunate experience of seeing a client sentenced to a draconian prison term that you saw as outlandishly disproportionate to the crime committed. President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder recently announced the formation of a clemency program, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot these past few weeks, ever since I busted into the largest maximum-security prison in the U.S., Louisiana State Penitentiary.
For one weekend each April and every weekend in October, LSP, also known as “Angola,” holds the Angola Prison Rodeo, in which inmates perform the bronco-busting duties. Tickets are sold to the public, and it sounded sufficiently bizarre to entice my friend Byron and I to drive the windswept, dusty road in the middle of Forlorn, LA to check it out.
The prison looks exactly like you’d expect, with imposing guard towers looming over the prison yard and high fences topped off with rows of barbed wire. Byron had a “friend of a friend” who sometimes worked there as a tour guide, so upon arrival, we asked a few guards if they knew his whereabouts. We were directed here and there until we happened upon one guard right outside the entrance who told us, quote, “You can go in and look for him.” And suddenly, we were inside! Just like that. Without buying tickets, and without having our bags or persons searched.
“Look,” I exclaimed to Byron. “We just broke into prison!”
The event took place in the “prison stadium.” Aside from having the incarcerated as the stars, the rodeo had the usual cowboys trying to stay atop bucking broncos and wrestling steers to the ground, all presided over by an announcer whose jokes were stale when Bob Hope told them. The two biggest crowd pleasing events involved prisoners getting ramrodded by rampaging bulls.
In one, six hula hoops were scattered to form a wide circle, with a prisoner standing in each one. Whereupon a bull was released, who knew his role well, and charged towards them. The last man to remain steadfast in his hoop was declared the winner.
In the other, four prisoners sat around a standard card table. At which point another bull was let out and raced horns-first into the table, blasting it to smithereens, and leaving the four men strewn on the ground. The victor was the inmate who was deemed to have stayed seated the longest.
“I hope the winner gets some time shaved off his sentence,” I said to Byron.
Outside and peripheral to the stadium was an arts and crafts fair area, with items crafted by the inmates, for sale. One artist whose paintings were particularly striking was “Parker,” who had a number of press clippings displayed extolling his work. His artist statement/rap sheet noted that he was mid-way through a 25 year sentence for dealing drugs. It didn’t detail which drug or the quantity, but there was no mention of any violence being involved in the crime. It was hard to see what good was being served by keeping Parker behind bars for more than another decade.
Another prisoner had hand-carved a beautiful wooden chess set, and still others exhibited highly skilled sculptures and woven goods. It took me a while before I realized that the men who were hawking the wares, and with whom we were “freely” interacting, were the artists/inmates themselves.
The impetus for the new clemency program seems that now that a couple of states have legalized the sale of marijuana and others have more or less decriminalized it, and the enormous sentencing disparity in offenses involving the sale of cocaine and crack has been drastically reduced, it’s become apparent that many thousands of people are serving decades-long sentences for offenses that today would be adjudicated much more leniently. While the impulse is good, the clemency program itself seems almost comically cautious. Those eligible to apply must have served at least ten years in prison, and been the very model of “model” inmate. Civil rights advocates have estimated that perhaps only a few hundred inmates will benefit anytime in the near future.
Still, it’s a beginning, and the process starts with inmates filing an application. It’s an opportunity to try to make things right for someone who has already spent too much time behind bars and, if nothing is done, still has a long time to look forward to.