Mr. Morrison, a 67-year-old Black man, was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison at age 17. After serving 40 years, he is eligible for parole.
Five other VOTE interns and I learn this as we sit in a small room in a Baton Rouge courthouse. There are four rows of chairs on either side of the room, and a monitor hanging on the wall in the middle of them. On the other side of the monitor sits Mr. Morrison, who’s in another small room at Louisiana State Penitentiary, better known as Angola. The Warden and another woman sit to his left, and a few people sit behind him. The quality of the monitor isn’t perfect, so I can’t quite see Morrison’s facial expression, but I imagine it is solemn.
Though there are five people sitting in front of us, only two are allowed to speak. One man, Morrison’s mentee from Angola, gives a heartfelt and compelling speech about his friend. He emphasizes how influential Morrison was in helping him to get to the successful place he is now—working as a law clerk with a law degree. There’s a job waiting for Morrison at the firm if he gets out.
“I don’t have room for error in my life anymore,” says Morrison, echoing the sentiments of his mentee.
Ultimately, though, he is denied parole because of a homemade weapon that was found in his cell last February. He claims it wasn’t his, but that doesn’t matter to the parole board, only one of whom votes in favor of his release. I close my eyes and take a deep breath, one of the other interns takes my hand. We all look at each other with rage and sadness.
Don’t cry right now, I tell myself.
Later, one of the other interns told me that she felt it wasn’t her place to cry, naming my own feelings in that moment. So I don’t allow myself to cry, despite listening to a Southern white man tell a 67-year-old Black man that he wishes him luck as he denies him his freedom.
Why is the solution for a teenager who commits a crime to lock them up for their entire life? I ask myself as I watch Mr. Brent, another Black man in his 60s, enter the room on the monitor.
I close my eyes and take a deep breath, one of the other interns takes my hand. We all look at each other with rage and sadness.
Like Morrison, Brent has also served a little over 40 years in prison. Unlike Morrison, however, Brent has family members sitting in the same room as us or with him at Angola. They are all wearing shirts with Brent’s face on it. There is a tonal shift as one of the board members, the same older white Southern man who wished Morrison good luck, begins cracking jokes. He was quite strict during Morrison’s case, but now he cautions Brent’s daughter to not mess up her speech, implying that her father’s parole is already guaranteed. He mixes up important numbers, like the year Brent was convicted and his risk assessment score. He jokes about how bad his math is.
“You already know how I’m going to vote,” he says.
The room simultaneously fills with nervous laughter and a sense of gravity. Although it is a relief to hear the board member make such a claim, his jokes are making light of Brent’s fate.
Brent is granted parole, and his family bursts into tears and a series of “amen.” There is not a dry eye in the room, including my own and those of the other interns.
Though Morrison was denied parole, it seems clear to me that both he and Brent deserve to be free. I cannot say the same for the third case, Mr. Parent.
Parent, a 56-year-old white man, has multiple convictions for various counts including intimidating a witness, simple burglary and extortion, among others. The Warden expresses how well he’s done in various programs that he has been a part of, and Parent himself expresses remorse, apologizing to the victims of his crime. He claims he has found God, that he has changed due to his new devotion to Christianity. In front of me, five white men nod along with his words. One of these men is Senator Danny Martiny (R - District 10), who speaks on Parent’s behalf. Where was the senator to speak on Morrison or Brent’s behalf? Parent clearly had powerful connections that protected him and provided him with an unfair advantage. This is reinforced when the prosecutor mentions Parent’s multiple D.U.I.’s that he never received any penalty for.
I see firsthand what I had learned long before: that the cyclical nature of this system is so pervasive and internalized in everyone.
Unlike the other two hearings, Parent’s victim sits across from us with two lawyers and family members. Ms. Blanco, the mother of the victim, speaks first. With anger in her voice, she explains the fear that she and her daughter felt when Parent called them with death threats. She claims that Parent’s religiosity means nothing, that he is still a danger to her and her daughter.
Ms. Lambert, Parent’s victim, eventually approaches the podium. Her voice shakes as she tells the board that if Parent were to get out, she and her son would not be safe. She points to the group of white men sitting in front of me and says that they are the same people who have always protected him. Senator Martiny looks up from his phone to shake his head and whisper something to a woman sitting next to him. I could feel the fear in her testimony, and the contrast between testimonies is unsettling.
Despite Parent’s display of power and white privilege, his parole is denied. Ms. Lambert and Ms. Blanco, along with their lawyers, exit the room almost immediately. The group of Parent’s supporters stay behind. I learn later they are required to wait a certain period of time to allow for the victims to leave. I watch as they approach the board members and shake their hands familiarly, smiling and making jokes with one another. The whole scene leaves me confused. Although I don’t believe anybody should stay incarcerated, and I wish there was a better option for Parent, the victims’ testimonies also had me questioning the idea of Parent’s release.
After listening to all three cases I was most bothered by the idea that both Morrison and Parent are considered dangers to society, yet the contrast between them could not be more stark. It was was very clear to me that if Morrison was released he would peacefully live the rest of his life. At almost 70 years old he seemed so far removed from his conviction, and I could tell that he was simply exhausted. I wondered what it would have taken to convince the parole board of the thoughts that I was having. Was it really just his violation and subsequent lockdown that made them consider him a danger and deny his parole? Was it the color of his skin? In this moment I remember that mass incarceration is an extension of slavery. I remember that I am fed narratives of white supremacy and of Black incarceration daily. I see firsthand what I had learned long before: that the cyclical nature of this system is so pervasive and internalized in everyone. Suddenly, I’m once again confused and enraged.
Each unanswered question and frustrating feeling motivates me to use my voice as a white ally to spread awareness and speak out against this system. Knowledge is power, and although at times I felt uncomfortable during the hearings, I am grateful for the opportunity to now pass on what I learned.
Stella Frank interned with VOTE this summer. She is a student at Bard College.