Courtesy of the Visiting Room Project

Last week, the Law and Racial Justice Center — a center operating out of Yale Law School — hosted a two-day symposium, bringing together individuals who had faced life sentences in the Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola.

The speakers shared their experiences with students, staff and New Haven residents on post-conviction legal support, disrupting mass incarceration and community support for individuals facing confinement. The symposium featured panels of individuals involved with The Visiting Room Project, or TVRP. They discussed the goals, development and narrative power of sharing the stories of individuals facing life sentences, which aims to address the burden of facing life incarceration and improving the criminal justice system.

“The uniqueness of this event is the ability to get the community at large to mix with the Yale community and to have a dual experience of what is to be on campus [and] socialize with individuals from many different backgrounds,” said Ray Boyd, a program manager of the Racial Justice Center. “Being a part of the Racial Justice Center [means I get] to stand up for racial equality.”

Before joining the Racial Justice Center and supporting its efforts, Boyd served 30 years in jail. 

Boyd was subject to the challenges of reintegrating into society and the devastating effects of excessive prison punishments on individuals and families — particularly those of communities of color. As a result of his experience, he has worked to ensure that he and those around him fight for racial equality and make cities and towns better and safer places to live.

The symposium fostered dialogue and discussion around the continued fight to overcome and address the systemic and institutional difficulties faced by Black, brown and impoverished white society members regarding incarceration. The panels at the symposium provided ideas and unique insights on how to develop community support for those incarcerated in jail and prison, involving communities in advocating for those facing harsh sentencing and intervening effectively to prevent catastrophic outcomes.

On the significance of improving the current criminal justice system, Boyd noted, “[Individuals] want to definitely come home a better person than when they went into [prision].” Communities can play an essential role in assisting people facing incarceration achieve this betterment by helping in the maturation process of individuals sentenced to jail or prison, providing advocacy and promoting their development to contribute positively and productively to their communities upon re-entry.

Boyd noted that re-entry requires special attention to ensure that those incarcerated have the necessary help before and after their release to reduce the already high recidivism rates. To fill this need, Boyd developed the Next Level Empowerment Program, a 501(c)(3) non-profit that assists the re-entry process of these populations. They offer services and resources to reduce recidivism rates and facilitate a much smoother transition back into their communities.

“What Next Level intends to bring to the city of New Haven is something different and innovative. It’s working with the families of those that are incarcerated post release to make sure that you know that family reunification is being built and the needs are being met,” Boyd said. “We’re not the same people that we were healthwise when we went into prison because we live off of preservative foods and things of that nature. And we also have hypervigilance that we suffer from because we were in those environments … I’m just trying to make the transition a lot smoother for them.” 

Calvin Duncan is a third-year law student at Lewis & Clark Law School who spent 28 and a half years in Angola prison before being exonerated from a life sentence in 2008. While in prison, he fell in love with the law and wanted to help others develop an understanding of the law and legislation that positioned them in their situations. 

Duncan observed that most inmates were disillusioned with life, suffering from poor mental health, or attempting to gain social acceptance by engaging in illicit activities and consuming drugs. However, once in prison, as they aged and aspired to be their genuine, purposeful selves, Duncan saw they could overcome these challenges and change for the better.

Following his release from prison, Duncan met Marcus Kondkar, chair of the Sociology Department at Loyola University New Orleans. Kondkar’s work focuses on criminology, sentencing patterns, re-entry and recidivism. After they met, they started TVRP. The project was initiated to advocate for prison reform and to interview people and let them tell their own stories. TVRP was created to help people see that they must do something to prevent their children from going down the wrong path before it’s too late.

“What I like about what’s happening with The Visiting Room now is that we are going out into the community and then sharing it with the community,” Duncan said. “What I would hope that society will do and say is ‘look, we have to do something to save our children.’”

Everett “Buff” Offray was one of TVRP’s ambassadors and participated in a panel discussion titled “Post-conviction Legal Advocacy: Jailhouse Lawyers and Appellate Defense Attorneys.” After being incarcerated, he strived to achieve a better life and became an inmate counselor at Angola Prison. He served 27 and a half years in prison. While incarcerated, he studied the law and began teaching, eventually assisting fellow inmates in gaining their freedom with the assistance of the Civil Rights Division.

“All of us used to go to our law class just trying to figure what we [can] do in the process of just knowing that we didn’t want to be in prison forever,” Offray said. “So, in the process of that I learned some things about the law, how we were practicing at least, and I was blessed enough that God used me to be able to help some brothers get out of the prison.”

After his release, Offray was employed by the Public Defender’s Office to help individuals transition back into society and aid with cases as a client advocate, similar to what he did in jail. Through his work with cases and re-entry services, he can continue his lifelong mission of assisting incarcerated people. From working on a project to build a post-conviction guidebook for jailed individuals to address ignored issues such as mental health, job insecurity and numerous other unaddressed problems previously incarcerated individuals confront, Offray emphasized the immense work needed in the criminal justice system.

Through his experience in prison, Offray highlights that everyone in prison has a story to tell and that hearing these stories can humanize them and help people empathize with their situations. Offray has encountered stigma and chastisement related to his time in prison. With his overall work and involvement with TVRP, he wants to challenge people’s preconceptions about those who have been incarcerated, as he believes that everyone makes mistakes and that people should be given second chances.

Offray expressed that he was confident that anyone who heard the stories he had heard wouldn’t be able to withhold empathy, as people make mistakes in life. He noted that while some individuals receive second chances after making a mistake, those who end up in prison often do so at a young age without fully understanding the gravity of their actions.

“Most of the guys in prison,” he remarked. “They get thrown in prison [at] 16, 17, 18 at 19 … Kids who don’t understand.” 

Daryl Waters, another ambassador of TVRP, is from a small town and was raised by his grandparents. Although he had a peaceful childhood and adolescence, he regretted deciding to be financially independent. He started selling drugs, which led to him being sentenced to life in prison in 1990. While in prison, he became a leader and a pastor and was involved in helping others with alternative sentencing. 

“While in prison, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to become a leader in prison for over 18 years,” Waters said. “I was a pastor in prison. I led a few clubs. I was part of the re-entry program helping other guys to have alternative sentencing. I started leading a very purposeful life not having to deal with the disease called alcoholism, which I battled with pre-prison. And I began to really love that kind of life. I felt good about myself.” 

Waters was recently released from prison and now works with a parole project to help others transition back into society. He continues to preach at a church and hopes to continue contributing authenticity and transparency to the conversation about helping those in prison transition back into their communities and prevent future crimes.

“I love my participation in The Visiting Room Project,” Waters said. “It is really awesome. I get a chance to tell my story and to own my narrative.”

Jimmie Robinson is a New Haven resident and an ambassador of the TVRP. During his time in prison, he talked about how he and his fellow inmates maintained their calm and peace while in prison and did not become institutionalized. He recalled having conversations about getting out of the darkness of prison, and he now sees himself as an example of that. His time in jail encouraged the importance of making a difference in life and contributing to the change he wants to see. 

“All they know is living in prison. Actually, to take them and put them into society would be a disadvantage. That’s without any help,” Robinson said, speaking on the experience of transitioning back into society. “I like to think of the ambassadors being the light and showing someone out of the darkness. That’s what we’re feeding into.”

Arthur and Tanya Carter have been married for over 30 years. He graduated high school, served in the Marine Corps and worked as a contractor before his life took a turn after getting involved with crack cocaine. He emphasized that one bad decision can change one’s life, and many individuals are serving life sentences in prison due to unfair laws that punish them for their mistakes. 

“So many guys make all of a sudden decisions that change the course of their whole life,” Arthur Carter said. “There are guys in prison in Angola right now that made one bad decision and have life without parole.”

Arthur Carter emphasized the effects of prison on family members, noting that he had to leave his wife and child for 34 years while he served his term.

“The lawmakers that create the laws and the unfairness of the laws are not predicated just on the fact that you’ve given us so many extra years,” Arthur Carter said. “I’d like to talk to you about the other side of people that have been affected by that [the families].”

In providing insight into how life sentences and excessive punishment impact families, Tanya Carter talked about how she felt lonely and depressed, with no one to talk to who could understand her situation. This experience with her husband has demonstrated how she believes the current sentencing of individuals is unfair, leading to good people getting locked up and leaving behind families. 

“I felt abandoned. I felt let down and scared. Very afraid. I went through a lot of depression and there was no one in that entire situation that I could talk to that would understand where I was,” Tanya Carter said. “The feeling of loneliness was overbearing.”

After three decades of separation and the difficulty of adjusting to life without her husband, Tanya Carter finally reunited with her husband. Now she can rejoice in finding people with the same mission of helping people in a similar situation as her husband through TVRP

She hopes efforts such as TVRP’s will extend to every state in the United States and people won’t forget about incarcerated people, as she firmly believes time can change people.

“For the family members that have families that are serving life sentences, I just want to put a message out to all of them [to not] give up. Don’t let go of your people. Keep praying for them,” Tanya Carter said. “Find a way to meet the right people to get your family out because I felt that 34 years was too long.”

To learn more about TVRP, visit their website here.

Abel Geleta covers Yale New Haven Health (YNHH) for the Science and Technology desk at the News. Previously, he covered stories and topics at the intersection of Science and Social Justice. Originally from Ethiopia, Abel has lived in northern Virginia for the past 12 years. He is currently a junior in Berkeley college studying History of Science, Medicine and Public Health as a scholar in the Global Health Studies Program