NEW ORLEANS – On a warm October day, 84-year-old Lester Pearson uses a cane to slowly walk out of the Louisiana State Penitentiary as a free man. After 57 years in the Angola prison, the path to freedom in a state dubbed the “incarceration capital of the world” has been a long and uncertain one.

Since 1964, Pearson has been locked up for murder after signing a plea agreement in which he was promised a chance at parole after serving 10 years and 6 months. It never happened.

At the time, Pearson said a guilty plea was the best hope for a Black man charged with murder and facing the electric chair in the Jim Crow South. The former geriatric prisoner is slower, noticeably quiet, hard of hearing, and struggles with his words.

After those 10 years and 6 months, “no one ever told me nothing,” Pearson told the PBS NewsHour.

Lester Pearson leaves Angola Prison in Louisiana using a cane.

Lester Pearson, 84, leaves Angola Prison in Louisiana using a cane after serving 57 years. His plea deal was for 10 years, 6 months. Photo by Andrew Hundley/Louisiana Parole Project

“I always thought that I’d die in prison. I’ve seen so many people die,” he said, three weeks after being released. “I’m not mad about it, I’m disgusted. I did way more than my time. I’m not the same person.”

The Louisiana Parole Project said Pearson is one of approximately 60 so-called “10/6 lifers” in the Louisiana State Penitentiary – commonly known as “Angola” – who plead guilty not only to avoid execution, but also with the understanding they would have a chance at freedom after a decade. Today, they range in age from 66 to 86.

Five 10/6 lifers have recently been released after more than 50 years behind bars. Prison reform advocates pushing for their release said it’s long overdue to address the broken promises of the past for the aging population.

“Back then, it was an overwhelmingly enticing offer [to avoid execution]. I think that our clients accepted that offer and then to have that promise broken; it is a real travesty of justice,” said Jane Hogan, an attorney with the Louisiana Parole Project. “The goal post shifted and the door was slammed on these men. They were essentially forgotten, and efforts at having the deal honored were basically ignored.”

The Parole Project is a nonprofit spearheading the “Forgotten Men Project” to free inmates who have served extreme sentences, with special consideration for Black prisoners. Andrew Hundley, the executive director of the Parole Project, said 80 percent of the 10/6 lifers and 73 percent of all inmates serving life sentences at Angola are Black.

“If you were a Black person in the 1960s that received a life sentence after a plea deal, you were much more likely to be forgotten. This is one of the saddest injustices,” Hundley said. “These people were wronged and [are] due relief. Shame on us for keeping someone in that place so long that it’s hard to release them into society.”

The sentencing guidelines were established in 1926 by Louisiana lawmakers. For the next 46 years, it was common to release people with life sentences after they’d served the 10 years and six months, so long as they showed good behavior during incarceration. As laws stiffened, the men who pleaded guilty before 1973 were left in prison, despite the deals they agreed to. The state repeatedly raised the parole eligibility requirement. The state first raised it to 20 years in 1973, and then again to 40 years in 1976. By 1979, the chance of parole was gone altogether.

Generations later, the cases are bringing renewed attention to the plight of some of Angola’s oldest prisoners. The history and the reality of the 10/6 lifers are baffling even for reform-minded judges and prosecutors in Orleans Parish. Of the 18 cases identified by the Parole Project in Orleans Parish, five have been resentenced to time served and released. Another eight cases are imminent and are expected to be resolved by the end of the year.

After waiting so long, most 10/6 lifers are resentenced and released in less than a month. In exchange, they agree not to file claims over the prolonged prison stays. All but one involve Black prisoners.

Advocates noted that a 2013 study by Louisiana State University indicated the recidivism rate was between 5 and 8 percent for those who had been convicted of first-degree murder in the state.

“Many stakeholders are not even aware that these cases exist. We spend a lot of time educating people. Everyone’s first response is that it’s impossible,” Hundley said.

Orleans Parish District Attorney, Jason Williams, speaks at a news conference.

Orleans Parish District Attorney Jason Williams speaks at a news conference. Under his office, Williams approved the release of the five 10/6 lifers. Photo by Orleans Parish District Attorney Staff

The first cases were brought to the attention of New Orleans’ progressive District Attorney Jason Williams, who was elected last year promising reform and to root out unjust convictions and sentences from the past. Williams’ newly created civil rights division recommended the recent releases, and similar deals are in the works for other lifers who were convicted in Orleans Parish.

Williams stresses his office is not downplaying the severity of the crimes and said, so far, no victims have objected to the sentence reductions.

“A number of people are surprised to find out that somebody is still in jail. A number of people want to have a conversation, not a confrontation,” Williams said. “The victims’ families and survivors have proven to be overwhelmingly supportive of our criminal justice reform.”

Williams also said the work hasn’t been easy because of the ages of the cases.

“Emily Maw, the civil rights division chief under the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s office, said they’ve made an “unprecedented effort in victim’s outreach work in all cases.”

“We really work with the survivors to ask what would help them in this process,” she said.

The Parole Project said the Orleans Parish district attorney is the first to consider the 10/6 lifers as a class.

“Finding out that there are men in their 70s and 80s who are languishing in jail, I was surprised and taken aback,” Williams said. “These were not mistakes. The forgotten men is just one of many broken promises to Blacks and minorities in the United States. It also sends a clear message that there is no bigger monument to white supremacy and racism than Angola state penitentiary.”

Louisiana’s legacy of mass incarceration

Angola is a notorious maximum-security prison near St. Francisville, Louisiana, taking its nickname from a former plantation that used to sit on its 18,000 acres, surrounded on three sides by swamp and the Mississippi River. With more than 6,000 prisoners, it is the largest prison in the United States and is about the size of Manhattan.

There are 4,400 prisoners at Angola currently serving life without parole in a state with the highest incarceration rate in the country, according to a February 2021 report from the Sentencing Project, a national nonprofit that collects data from corrections agencies in all 50 states. The data shows 36 percent of Louisiana prisoners are lifers who are 55 and older. Seventy-four percent serving life sentences are Black. And per capita, Louisiana has by far the highest rate of inmates serving no-parole sentences, according to the Sentencing Project.

Kenneth Womack, 73, is released from Angola Prison in Louisiana after 53 years.

Kenneth Womack, 73, is released from Angola Prison in Louisiana after 53 years. Photo by Andrew Hundley/Louisiana Parole Project

Reform advocates concede that reckoning with the past may be a little more challenging in other more conservative parts of the state. Releasing prisoners with violent offenses could bring political turmoil.

“I really commend what Jason Williams’ office is doing … I hope other district attorneys follow suit, and I hope it is a trend,” Hundley said. “For now, we are creating momentum and we’re planning to approach individual district attorneys in the coming months. Then, we hope there can be legislation to expedite the release of others.”

Kenneth Womack, 73, who admits hope was wearing thin, is grateful that he also got a new deal. Womack was released in October after a much longer sentence than he expected – 53 years at Angola for murder. Womack teared up and became emotional.

“No doubt, we were forgotten until this year. When I was going through the gate, I was thinking, ‘I’m finally free.’” I kept looking forward and wanted to leave it all behind me, he said.  “It was over, and I was finally out.”

‘It was like I fell from outer space’

Louis Mitchell, left, and Willie Ingram is released from Angola Prison in Louisiana on October 5, 2021.

With the help of the Louisiana Parole Project, Louis Mitchell (L) and Willie Ingram (R) are released from Angola Prison in Louisiana on October 5, 2021.

Two other long-serving prisoners went before Orleans Parish Criminal District Judge Nandi Campbell in early October. Before being elevated to the bench last year, Campbell was a New Orleans public defender and defense attorney in an election that advocates said marked a significant opportunity for criminal justice reform. Campbell said the 10/6 lifer cases were not on her radar until she was asked to end the extended incarceration for 74-year-old Louis Mitchell and 73-year-old Leroy Grippen. At the time of arrest, Grippen used an alias, which followed him throughout incarceration. His birth name is Willie Ingram.

The cases grabbed her attention. Mitchell was sentenced to two life terms for two counts of aggravated rape in 1966. Ingram received a life sentence after he pleaded guilty to aggravated rape and armed robbery in 1970.

“I can honestly say I never heard of these men until I took the bench. I was frustrated and sad that nobody tried to correct this wrong before 2021,” Campbell told the NewsHour. “My eyes are now open and I’ve learned something I didn’t know before. I thank Mr. [Ingram] for it.”

Campbell said she’s happy the DA’s office has decided to handle these cases.

“I was happy that these individuals felt heard finally, but I was also sad because we had no way to right that wrong.”

While the former inmates are no longer incarcerated, life is not easy outside prison walls. All five of the recently released men gathered for lunch at a Baton Rouge pizza restaurant. They admitted even ordering drinks and pizza is tough when you’ve spent a half-century behind bars, especially with all the new technology, like cell phones.

As part of a re-entry program, Angola's most elderly prisoners enjoy pizza after their release after 50 years.

As part of a re-entry program, Angola’s most elderly prisoners enjoy pizza after their release after 50 years. Photo by Roby Chavez

“It is indescribable. For me, it was like I fell from outer space. When I left the street, they didn’t have a microwave. They didn’t have these little telephones. They didn’t have seat belts in cars. Technology is everywhere. When I left, it was nowhere,” Mitchell told the NewsHour.

At one point during lunch, Pearson struggles to answer a phone call. He simply puts it to his ear and attempts to talk without first swiping and entering his passcode. He looks perplexed. Ingram, 73, who was in prison since he was 18, tries to help. Both chuckle and admit there is a bit of a learning curve. Ingram even got his first birthday cake and party after serving 51 years.

“When I finally walked out as a free man, I felt nervous,” Ingram said. “Being free, it feels good. It feels like you can take a deep breath and exhale and it’s all good. Everything you look at, you love it.”

Students from LSU help former inmates learn technology as part of a re-entry program.

Students from Louisiana State University help former inmates learn technology as part of a Louisiana Parole Project re-entry program. Photo by Roby Chavez

The Parole Project provides housing, social services, and re-entry specialists to support inmates who are released. LSU students have been volunteering to give a crash course in technology at the Parole Project offices on everything from GPS to Google searches, voicemail, and texting.

“Our goal is self-sufficiency. We want our clients to be able to live on their own. We don’t just seek to get people out of prison,” Hundley said. “We want people to be successful and create examples for more justice reform.”

Hundley himself knows the power of second chances and is a hard-working example of reform. The 40-year-old is not just the executive director of the Parole Project; he was cellmates with Pearson while serving a life sentence until 2016. Hundley, arrested at 15, was the state’s first juvenile lifer freed from prison after the Supreme Court ruled that mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles were unconstitutional.

Six years after his release, Hundley returned to Angola, only this time it was to drive Pearson home. Hundley remembers reviewing the 10/6 lifer list, and one name stood out. It was Pearson, the last person he saw when he was set free after almost 20 years.

“I recognized his name and it just jumped out at me. This is the person that I slept above for years. This was one of the last faces that I saw as I was leaving the prison, and now I was returning to free him,” Hundley said. It made it extra personal for me.”