Why dozens of men spent most of their lives in prison after Louisiana reneged on plea deal

The cases of some of Louisiana’s longest-serving inmates are receiving renewed attention. A group of now-elderly men called the "10/6 lifers," who were promised parole after serving 10 years and six months. But the state reneged on these deals and many were never released. NewsHour’s Roby Chavez has been reporting on this from Louisiana as part of our series, "Searching for Justice."

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  • William Brangham:

    Some of Louisiana's longest serving prison inmates are receiving renewed attention. They're called the 10/6 Lifers, a group of now-elderly men who were promised parole after serving 10 years and six months.

    But the state reneged on those deals, and many of those men were never released.

    "NewsHour"'s communities reporter, Roby Chavez, been reporting on this from Louisiana. I spoke with him earlier this week.

    It's part of our Searching For Justice series.

    So, Roby, it's so good to see you again. Can you just explain a little bit more about these men? How is it that they came to be stuck in prison for so long?

  • Roby Chavez:

    William, quite frankly, the goalposts were moved on them.

    Some five decades ago, they were promised, if they pled guilty, they'd have a chance at parole. They'd also have an opportunity for freedom. But that never happened. Many of them, as you mentioned, are still in prison. There are some 55 so-called 10/6 Lifers. Five of them have now been released from Louisiana State Penitentiary, better known as Angola.

    Keep in mind, they were sentenced in the '60s and in the '70s, which was a much different time back then, especially for most of these men, who were African Americans, who were not always assured a fair trial. They were faced with a stark choice: Do we take this plea deal, or do we almost certainly face electrocution in the state's electric chair?

    Many of them chose to do hard time at Angola, a notorious prison, 18,000 acres sitting on a former slave plantation. Many of them said, if they would have known that they would have spent the rest of their lives in jail, they would have not taken the deal.

    We met Louis Mitchell shortly after he was released from prison. He has been there since he was 19 years old. He was charged with two rapes. He now believes he was tricked.

    Louis Mitchell, Incarcerated For 55 Years: I didn't want the death penalty, but I really didn't want to really plead guilty. But my lawyer said that my best option was to plead guilty.

    So I pled guilty on an agreement that, when I plead guilty, I would get 10 years and six months.

  • Roby Chavez:

    And, as a result, he spent 55 years in prison. His case was recently brought before a judge and district attorney. Once they all agreed to change his sentence, he was released within a month, William.

  • William Brangham:

    So, help me understand how this actually happened.

    How and why did the state suddenly change the terms of these men's imprisonment?

  • Roby Chavez:

    Look, William, for 46 years, it was common practice. If you took this deal after being charged with a serious offense, all you had to do was serve 10 years and six months.

    But in the '70s, when laws started to change, people started to get tough on crime. Parole eligibility changed several times, in 1973, '76, and then again in 1979, when parole eligibility was taken away altogether.

    There was new hope in 2017, when a prison reform package passed in the state. However, these men, the 10/6 Lifers, were overlooked. That meant that, if you were convicted before 1973, you had to serve out your life sentence, even if you were a model prisoner, which many of these men were.

  • William Brangham:

    So, your story, and, as you're describing here, describes these men as forgotten men. How is it that they — that their cases are now starting to come to light?

  • Roby Chavez:

    Look, the stories have been out there for quite some time.

    They recently got renewed interest because of the Louisiana Parole Project. It's a nonprofit run by ex-inmates and designed to try to help folks who were wrongly convicted or living these longer sentences than they were promised.

    It's also a matter of good timing. In New Orleans, there was a reform slate of judges that were elected into office, along with a reform-minded district attorney, Jason Williams. Once both of them, those judges and the district attorney, heard about these cases, they were very quick to resentence them, and most were released within the last month or two.

  • William Brangham:

    And what is it like for those men? I can't imagine spending five decades in prison and then suddenly coming out. That's got to be quite a transition for these men.

  • Roby Chavez:

    Exactly.

    As you might imagine, there's been a lot that has changed in the world in the last half-century. Keep in mind, again, many of them are older and have health problems. They have never even managed their own medications. So it's quite a challenge.

    Take a listen to what they said about this new world.

  • Louis Mitchell:

    It's like I fell out of space, because, when I left, the street didn't have a microwave. They didn't have these little telephones. They didn't have the GPS. And they didn't have seat belts in cars.

  • Roby Chavez:

    We went with them to a simple pizza joint to try to see exactly what their experience was — would look like. There were scanners, credit card machines, and mobile app menus that they had to use, and they all struggled.

    The Louisiana Parole Project, however, is well aware of the difficulty. On one day that we visited, they brought in LSU students who were volunteering just to teach them how to use their telephone. They were taught how to use their GPS, how to answer a phone. They were taught how to use their voice-message.

  • William Brangham:

    And, Roby, as you're describing, you met some of the men who have gotten out, but there are still, as your reporting indicates, a lot of men who are still in prison.

    What happens for them? Do they have any chance of getting out?

  • Roby Chavez:

    Look, we expect at least eight of them who are from New Orleans to be released before the end of the year. That leaves about 40 others.

    The road for them does not look as quick and easy, because the rest of the state a little more conservative. Some of the judges are equally conservative and very hard on crime, as you know, Louisiana, known as the incarceration capital of the world.

    Still, the Louisiana Parole Project says they're going to meet with those district attorneys, and possibly even with the state legislature to try to change laws, hopefully, new laws that can right the wrongs of the past, William.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Roby Chavez, our "NewsHour" communities correspondent based in Louisiana, always good to see you. Thanks for this great reporting.

  • Roby Chavez:

    Thank you, William.

  • William Brangham:

    You can read more of Roby's reporting on this issue on our Web site. That's PBS.org/NewsHour.

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