Louisiana Is The World’s Prison Capital
Criminal Defense Attorney New Orleans
Elizabeth B. Carpenter, Esq. – Serving clients in Orleans, Jefferson, Terrebonne, Tangipahoa, St. Bernard, St. Charles, St. Tammany, St. John, Assumption and Plaquemines Parishes.
Angola Inmates Are Taught Life Skills,
Then Spend Their Lives Behind Bars
ANGOLA — People always said Johna Haynes was lucky because of the white hair that sprouted from the crown of his head since he was a baby. He acquired the nickname “Patch” from New Orleans police officers, who came to know him all too well. At 31, the patch has turned into a bald spot, the pale strands now dispersed throughout his close-cropped dark hair, leaving him prematurely gray. “And still lucky?” someone asked.
He looked around incredulously at his surroundings — a late summer Sunday afternoon in the Louisiana State Penitentiary’s west yard, men playing basketball and lifting weights, stray cats sunning themselves on concrete ledges, an idyllic scene if one did not look to the barbed wire fences in the distance.
“I’m lucky I’m alive,” he finally said.
Something — the white patch, divine intervention or just plain luck — spared Haynes from a violent death, the fate of his brother, stepfather, stepbrother, cousin and innumerable friends. It did not spare him from another well-traveled path out of the Florida public housing complex: the winding, achingly bucolic bus ride to the penitentiary commonly known as Angola, where his own father served more than a decade and where Haynes is slated to spend the rest of his life without the possibility of parole.
Haynes estimates he stole at least 160 cars and committed at least 130 robberies in a brief, prolific criminal career before he was locked up forever at the age of 21. When he worked at a Shoney’s restaurant in Metairie, he never once took the bus — he always arrived in style on stolen wheels. The guns he took from parked cars at Carnival parades or the Bayou Classic became the guns he carried while selling drugs and the guns he used to rob people.
He was shot at many times and watched others die, but he was never hit. Nor, he said, has he ever killed anyone. His dangerous lifestyle caught up to him in a different way — life without parole for pointing a gun at a man and making off with his car and valuables. Two previous convictions, for stealing a car and for trying to escape from police custody, made Haynes a habitual offender. A young thug was off the streets for good.
Louisiana leads the nation in the percentage of its citizens serving life without parole, fueling the state’s world-leading incarceration rate. Angola is clogged with prisoners who will grow old and die there. Like Haynes, many arrived as young African-American men from rough neighborhoods who wrote themselves a ticket to either prison or an early death by embracing the lawless ethos of their peers.
Some criminal justice experts believe life without parole should be reserved for heinous murders, solely as an alternative to the death penalty. The U.S. Supreme Court recently did away with the sentence for juveniles who have not committed murder; Haynes was barely out of his teens during his final armed robbery.
Yet it may have been Angola, and a life sentence, that saved Johna Haynes. Now, he wants a chance to show that he has changed.
A gun-toting menace does not transform overnight into a model inmate with a Bible in his back pocket.
Wilbert Rideau, the condemned murderer turned world-famous prison journalist who was freed in 2005, writes in his memoir that his own awakening at Angola came about gradually. Through reading books, he discovered a world beyond the brutal, impoverished one he knew.
Arriving at Angola in August 2002, Haynes spent more than a year laboring in the fields and living in a tiny cell among the worst of the worst. Good behavior eventually made him eligible for a spot in the main prison, with its dormitory-style sleeping quarters, vocational classes and inmate-led clubs. Once considered the bloodiest prison in the country, Angola is now known for giving lifers, who make up nearly three-quarters of its population, the chance to build meaningful lives behind bars, even as they are unlikely to taste freedom again.
Murderers and rapists have embraced the prison’s wholesome, Christian-influenced values. Cursing is banned for inmates and staff alike. Violence is rare in the minimum- and medium-security dormitories where most of the 5,100 inmates live. The men make wooden toys for needy children, teach each other the piano or banjo, preach through self-run religious organizations and entertain the public at the famous twice-yearly rodeo.
A seventh-grade dropout, Haynes completed his GED certificate and studied auto mechanics. He began reading on his own, partaking of the “locker library” run by literary-minded inmates who trade well-worn paperbacks out of the metal chests that hold all their earthly possessions. He became a devout Christian.
As with Rideau a generation ago, it was not any one moment but an accumulation of small moments that made the armed robber into the bookworm. It took being in prison, completely cut off from his old ways, for Haynes to realize that the law of the jungle — preying on the weak, selling drugs, getting killed over a few hundred dollars or a down jacket — was not the way most people lived.
Haynes is now a sophomore in the Angola Bible college, an extension of the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary — the only bachelor’s program open to prisoners, leading to a B.S. in Christian ministry. He hopes his four children — a son, two daughters and a stepdaughter — will have the future he did not.
“The change I’ve undergone is for the best, because had I not straightened up I would most likely be as many of my friends who are deceased,” Haynes wrote in a letter. “It hurts me to know that a lot of them lost their lives before they even got to see life. But that pain has an element of positivity to it because I use it as fuel to power my dreams.”
Getting an Education
Angola is like a 9th Ward reunion. The man who used to sleep in the bunk above Haynes was a classmate from Carver Elementary. Haynes’ uncle is a fellow inmate. More than a dozen friends from the old neighborhood are now permanent companions at “The Farm.”
At Haynes’ urging, his two younger brothers moved to rural north Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina to escape the temptations of the street. Dwight Haynes made a new life for himself in Winnsboro.
The other brother, June, went back to New Orleans and was shot dead last February, at age 21. Johna Haynes called the killing “the worst thing that’s happened to me since I’ve been living.”
“There’s always periods in your odyssey where you feel like, ‘Man, I’m ready to leave this alone. I want to be with my kids. I want to have a family. I’m tired of looking behind my back,’ ” Haynes said. “But you just don’t have the education to get a job that’s going to provide for you. That I’m going to be a CEO today? You can’t say that. You can be a laborer; you can be a burger flipper or something like that.”
In prison, Haynes is finally getting the education that could have led to a better job on the outside. Heading to a tutorial for an electrician certification exam, Haynes grabbed a book to supplement the Bible he always carries. “I need something to read if there’s any down time,” he explained. His possessions, spread on his narrow bunk, could be cleaned up later. No one would steal from him, he said, since he has long ago established his reputation as someone not to be messed with.
A husky 6 feet 2 inches tall and weighing 280 pounds, Haynes has a broad face that breaks easily into a bemused grin when recounting the absurdities of his former criminal lifestyle. A tattoo of his mother’s name, Rachel, is visible above the neckline of his prison-issue white T-shirt. Janay, for his oldest daughter, is inked on his left arm, near a long scar where he was stabbed as a teenager in a fight over a girl. In 10 years, he has left the 18,000-acre prison once, to receive treatment for a stomach ailment.
To stay abreast of new technology and avoid becoming a Rip Van Winkle if he is ever released, he saves news clippings about Facebook and Twitter. He reads a trade magazine for chief financial officers, in case he achieves his dream of running a mobile car detailing and air-conditioning repair business. The flashcards he keeps in his jeans pockets are covered with words he wants to remember: “verve,” “esplanade,” “tetchy,” “detritus,” “paleontologist,” “saké.”
When he was running the streets, he had no need for books. Now, his body trapped, the life of the mind beckons. Cicero, Khalil Gibran, George Bernard Shaw and the 18th century theologian Jonathan Edwards are a refuge from the humiliating routines of prison life — stopping whatever you are doing to be counted three times a day; eating beans, rice and cornbread when you crave a pork chop; sleeping in an un-air-conditioned dorm with 80 other men at the height of Louisiana summer. Over the years, Haynes has scrounged a few extra towels to stuff under his bedsheet, making the stiff plastic mattress a touch more comfortable.
“I saw the cherry blossoms from Angola; reading is my escape,” he wrote of the Japanese novel “The Makioka Sisters,” set in pre-World War II Osaka.
‘A more moral person’
By Haynes’ own reckoning, he would have remained a thug at heart, ready to resume terrorizing innocent New Orleanians, had he received a shorter sentence at a prison that did not offer as many opportunities for self-improvement. He is unexpectedly candid in acknowledging that he needed a life sentence to appreciate the value of his life. But there needs to be an out, he said, a way to show that, after 10, 20 or 30 years behind bars, he is no longer a threat to society.
Louisiana lifers used to get out on parole after serving 10 years and six months. The law was changed in 1979 to “life means life.” Since then, Angola has been filling up with men who, barring a rare reprieve, will spend the rest of their lives there. The pardon board only intervenes in extraordinary cases, and even then, governors are reluctant to sign the release papers, fearing a politically damaging relapse.
“See, a lot of time when dudes come to prison, if their sentence is short, they can’t wait to go home,” Haynes said. “You have to put the person in the situation where it’s like cornering a cat. You’re going to go into this corner, and the only way you’re going to come out is as a changed person. If I’d had five years or 10 years, I don’t think I would have made this type of change.”
For Haynes and others like him, change means scrapping a violent, revenge-filled moral code reminiscent of the Hatfields and McCoys. The code requires that he kill anyone who disrespects him or his family. It allows, even expects, that he steal: “If I want it and he got it, I’m ‘a get it’ (from him),” in Haynes’ words.
Yet Haynes recalls simple acts of kindness from his youth in New Orleans, the nation’s most murderous city. He looked after a paralyzed neighbor, giving beer and massages to the wheelchair-bound man. He entered narrow passageways ahead of his companions to protect them from any gunfire that might be directed at him.
Troy Delone, one of Haynes’ closest friends at Angola, has become a religious man and a scholar in prison. When the two met in 2003, they were close in age, both from New Orleans housing projects, both deciding whether to try something new or keep bucking the system.
“Should I put myself in prison, while in prison? Stay in the cell blocks, Camp J — when is this going to stop?” as Delone put it, referring to the maximum-security parts of Angola where troublemakers reside with limited access to recreation or education.
Delone, 33, is a senior in the Bible college and a mentor in the Orleans Parish Criminal Court’s re-entry program for young offenders. He is serving two sentences of life without parole for a pair of armed robberies.
“Although he wasn’t that much on a positive road, he was always intelligent, book-wise,” Delone said of his friend. “Since then, he’s enhanced that. He’s grown spiritually and become a more moral person. More of the old Johna is diminishing, and he’s becoming a new person.”
Delone himself has changed so much in speech and manner that his street cred has diminished. The younger inmates he mentors regard him with wariness until he convinces them that he grew up in the Iberville projects and used to be just like them.
The other day in class, Haynes impressed John Robson, the college’s director, with an impassioned speech about the corrupt values he once lived by. A second-year student in a class of 100, he is a standout.
“He is really articulate. He is exceptional in his articulation, very transparent. He’s a blue-chipper,” Robson said.
Born to a Life of Crime
Although he barely knew his father, Haynes followed square in the old man’s footsteps. When he was born on Jan. 19, 1981, his father, Melvin Jones, was serving time at Angola for killing a man in a bar fight. When Haynes entered prison himself, his then-girlfriend was pregnant with his son, Johna Jr., now 10.
Haynes’ role model growing up was an older cousin named Turk, who schooled him in the ways of the street. By the time Turk died at 19 in a hail of semiautomatic fire, he had taught his protege well. Young Johna knew how to steal without the slightest prick of conscience, to keep a handcuff key in his pocket in case he was arrested, to target Dodges, Chryslers and Jeeps because they did not need to be hot-wired but could be started with a screwdriver in the ignition. He sold his first drugs at 11, pocketing a commission from a crack dealer who feared the buyers were undercover agents. At 13 and 14, he was peddling rocks with Turk in the Calliope housing project.
His mother, Rachel Haynes, who gave birth to him when she was 14, stayed in an abusive relationship with Johna’s stepfather for years before striking out on her own. She raised five children on welfare and then on a restaurant cook’s meager salary.
Johna, her oldest, was a bright student, but finishing his assignments early only gave him more time to goof off in class. After he dropped out in seventh grade, the authorities made him enroll in alternative schools, but he never lasted long.
“I was a single parent. I did the best I could. He was always in trouble,” Rachel Haynes said. “I told him, ‘Johna, you have to stop. The streets are going to catch up to you.’ … I wish he would have changed when he was out here and I was begging him to change.”
Stints in Orleans Parish Prison did nothing to scare Johna straight. At 18, riding in a stolen car on the way to a party, he tried to rob two men of their gold jewelry using a pellet gun. One of the victims had a real gun and shot Haynes’ 13-year-old friend. Even though he knew the police would come looking for him, Haynes kept vigil at the hospital for his young friend, who died that night.
In the squad car, Haynes’ handcuff key served its purpose. He jimmied the lock and made a run for it. He was never prosecuted for the attempted pellet gun robbery but was sentenced to a year for the attempted escape.
“I’m really not sure how many cars I stole. A number like 160 is pretty high, but it might be low,” Haynes wrote recently. “I remember a time when I was counting all the people I’ve robbed — I got up to 134 or 130. I hate these numbers! But guess what, I have no secrets. I appreciate where I’ve been, it just makes where I’m headed more beautiful. As for the cars, I’ll go with the 160, though it’s modest.”
On June 11, 2001, nearly a year after his release from prison, Haynes shoved a lady’s stocking over his head and pulled a gun on a man named Curtis Aubry outside an auto body shop on St. Roch Avenue. He grabbed Aubry’s possessions — two rings, a watch, a bracelet and $500 — and took off in Aubry’s car.
“It’s like once you do it, it’s addictive, it gratifies. Why sell drugs for 12 hours when you could steal it from someone?” Haynes said, recalling his former mindset.
After a half-day trial, an Orleans Parish jury found the 20-year-old guilty of armed robbery. Judge Julian Parker gave him the maximum — 99 years without parole — before then-District Attorney Harry Connick’s office upped the ante, charging him as a triple offender. On May 24, 2002, Parker resentenced him to life without parole.
Four days after Haynes committed his final armed robbery, the law changed. Louisiana legislators decided the two prior offenses on a multibill had to be more serious than those Haynes had racked up for auto theft and the escape attempt. The change did not apply to crimes that occurred before that date.
For Haynes, the downgrade would have made little difference, even had it applied retroactively. Ninety-nine years without parole for the armed robbery — a crime he admits he committed — still would have put him behind bars for the rest of his life.
Burl Cain is perhaps the most famous prison warden in the country because of the many films and books documenting life at Angola. Short and heavyset, his square face topped by a thatch of white hair, he delivers bon mots in a thick Louisiana drawl.
“Thug,” “pure rogue” and “animal” are some of the terms he uses to describe many of the newly convicted criminals entering his prison.
Yet he is a firm believer that “really horrible people” can change. Even Telly Hankton, who recently shocked New Orleans with the audacity of his brutal revenge killing and attempts to tamper with the justice system, could become a new man at Angola.
“I won’t be here, but in 25 or 27, 28 years, it’ll be interesting to see what he’s like,” Cain said of Hankton.
Louisiana is one of six states where all life sentences are handed down without the chance of ever going before a parole board. First- and second-degree murderers automatically receive life without parole, on the guilty votes of as few as 10 of 12 jurors.
Nearly 12 percent of Louisiana inmates, or more than 4,500 people, are serving life without parole — the highest proportion in the nation, according to a Sentencing Project report. While most have committed violent crimes, nearly one in 10 are locked up forever on drug or other nonviolent offenses. Three in four are African-American men.
In Texas, less than 1 percent of state prisoners are serving life without parole; the figure in Tennessee is 1.3 percent.
Cain sides with those who find the sentence morally objectionable because it assumes a person cannot be rehabilitated. Lifers like Johna Haynes should get periodic hearings before a parole board, Cain said — by no means a guarantee of release, but a chance to prove that a drastic transformation has taken place, provided the victim does not voice strong objections.
“I absolutely don’t believe in it,” Cain said, “because when you say, ‘Life without parole,’ you’ve given up on the criminal and said, ‘You cannot be helped and therefore you’re going to stay in jail until you die.’ ”
At Angola, a new arrival cannot be housed unless someone else is transferred out or dies. With three-quarters serving life without parole and one-quarter at least 50 years old, medical costs are skyrocketing at the same time the budget is shrinking due to state cutbacks. The much-praised hospice program, where younger inmates care for the dying, was born of necessity. At an average of $63.15 a day, a lifer who enters prison in his early 20s will cost taxpayers over $1 million if he lives past age 70.
Once a slave plantation, Angola is still a working farm, with thousands of acres of corn, peas, squash, beans and other crops under cultivation. But there are no longer enough able-bodied inmates to work the fields — only about 300 or 400, compared with 1,000 in past decades. The rest are too old or have graduated to other work assignments. Last year, Angola had to import workers from another state prison to bring in the harvest.
“I’m worried about prison being a place for predators and not dying old men,” Cain said. “That’s what it’s really for, and I want predators, sleeping in these beds, that’s going to hurt you — instead of a bunch of old men that’s creeping around on their last legs costing my budget a fortune.”
Cain occasionally advocates for inmates before the pardon board, but only a select few he believes have zero chance of committing another crime. By the time a man is into his 50s, “criminal menopause” has set in, with statistics showing older parolees much less likely to become repeat offenders. Known for infusing Angola with religion, Cain said Christianity provides a convenient package of values but is not the only path to change.
Rehabilitation is a slow process. It takes at least 10 years for change to take root, Cain said, and more like 20 to 25 to completely exorcise the criminal within. By that measure, Haynes is only halfway there. Even if he truly changes, his path to freedom is narrow. The law that allowed for his life sentence is no longer on the books, but at every stage, the odds are heavily stacked against tampering with a court’s verdict.
For tough-on-crime advocates, long sentences remove dangerous people like Johna Haynes from the streets, while also acting as a deterrent. People are capable of changing, but they should not be released from the penalty they brought on themselves, said Irv Magri, a former New Orleans police officer and president of the victims rights group Crimefighters.
“It may be harsh, but if you could pass a bill requiring life imprisonment for anyone pushing heroin or cocaine above a certain number of grams, I’m telling you, your crime rate is going to drop tremendously. They’re going to go somewhere else,” Magri said.
Hope For His Children
In ornate, left-tilting script, Haynes writes letters to his four children, taking care with his grammar and spelling to set a good example. He urges them to stay in school and out of trouble, to aspire to college and a good career, to not let the many family tragedies get them down.
They rarely write back. Instant gratification from video games and text messages is much closer at hand. He settles for annual visits at the prison’s Returning Hearts family day. His mother, who does not own a car and says she has not been able to arrange transportation, has not seen her son since he got married at Angola in 2005, a few months before Katrina. She has troubles of her own, recently serving time on a heroin charge and dealing with the shooting death of her youngest son, June.
Haynes and his former wife Esther, who is Johna Jr.’s mother, have since divorced, though he still considers her his “ideal.”
Janay, the daughter he had before he met Esther, is attending high school in Philadelphia, where she settled after Katrina.
Domonique — Esther’s daughter and Hayne’s stepdaughter — is a senior at Warren Easton High School. She aspires to be an attorney and interned for Orleans Parish Juvenile Court Chief Judge Ernestine Gray last summer.
Kayla, Haynes’ youngest daughter, also wants to be an attorney, but at 14, she has not been attending school. She experienced the juvenile justice system from the defendants’ side after stabbing another girl on the school bus. Two of her uncles, including Haynes’ brother June, died within a year of each other. There is only so much her father can do from prison, but his words carry weight because of his own troubled past.
“I think the only thing I can do while I’m in prison is write to her and encourage her,” Haynes said. “When I talk to her, she listens. We have this bond, this connect, between each other. She knows what I’m saying is true, what I’m saying is real.”
Between his studies, church and rehearsals for his gospel rap group, Haynes has little spare time. He usually plays on prison basketball teams but has been sidelined due to an Achilles injury. He is a regular at the law library, researching cases that might move his appeal forward, though success, especially without an attorney, is an extreme long shot.
Believing he will leave Angola someday requires a leap of faith. Does he ever picture himself as one of those elderly inmates in a wheelchair, a common sight at the prison? No, that would be too dangerous. He believes because he has to, because if he stops believing, he might stop his relentless quest to learn more, to become better, to guide his children in the right direction, to keep the old Johna at bay.
Never mind that during a decade behind bars, his lucky patch has vanished, leaving only scattered strands of gray. According to his newfound religion, God protected him on the streets of New Orleans when bullets flew, God is watching him behind the gates of Angola, and God will rescue him from the unyielding weight of life without parole when the time comes.
“I was a terrible kid. I was terrible,” Haynes said. “I look back on it and I say, ‘Man, God had to be with me,’ because there was a lot of times I should have been dead, a lot of times I’ve been shot at, a lot of things I did, that I didn’t want to be living. But God sees otherwise.”