The North Star is a network of Black and Latinx journalists and creators that provide daily news stories and podcasts with action steps that help you get involved. We speak truth to power without fear because our stories, our voices and our lives matter. Please consider becoming a member and enjoy exclusive benefits of our ad-free platform for as little as $5 a month.
After serving nearly 24 years of a life sentence in prison, Fair Wayne Bryant was released on parole on Oct. 15 in Louisiana. Bryant’s crime? Stealing a pair of hedge clippers.
Bryant, a 63-year-old Black man, served his sentence at Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, the largest maximum-security facility in the U.S. that is partly named after the former slave plantation it replaced, according to The Washington Post. He was finally freed after the Louisiana Committee on Parole voted 3-0 on Oct. 15 to release Bryant.
“Mr. Bryant was given a second chance today,” Bryant’s attorney Robert Lancaster told The New York Times. “His life sentence, a result of an oppressive habitual sentencing scheme, came after a series of minor pecuniary crimes to fuel an untreated drug addiction. He was sentenced to a life in prison instead of given the help he needed.”
Bryant was given a life sentence due to archaic and racist “habitual offender” laws in Louisiana. The laws, which are also known as the “three-strikes laws,” mean that people who have multiple felony convictions can get life sentences for something like simple burglary.
Prior to stealing the hedge clippers, Bryant committed four other felonies, including armed robbery, stealing merchandise from a store, forging a check for $150 and stealing property from someone’s home, NPR reported. The habitual offender law, along with the fact that Bryant’s 1979 armed robbery was considered a “violent” crime, led him to be sentenced to life in prison.
Previous Attempts to Free Bryant
Bryant petitioned for parole under Louisiana law in 2015 and was quickly denied his request. He continued to fight his conviction and, in 2018, his sentence was changed to life with the possibility of parole. He applied for parole twice more but was denied both times, according to The Washington Post.
In July, the Louisiana Supreme Court almost unanimously denied Bryant’s request to review his life sentence. However, the court’s sole Black judge wrote a dissent which decried the laws as racist and called Bryant’s life sentence “grossly out of proportion to the crime and serves no legitimate penal purpose.”
Louisiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Bernette Johnson wrote that the habitual offender laws were a “modern manifestation” of the “Pig Laws,” which sought to re-enslave Black Americans for minor crimes. She noted that the “Pig Laws” of the 19th century were used during the Reconstruction to keep Black people in poverty, The Washington Post reported.
“This case demonstrates their modern manifestation: harsh habitual offender laws that permit a life sentence for a Black man convicted of property crimes,” Johnson wrote in her dissent.
Louisiana’s History of Habitual Offender Laws
While Louisiana’s habitual offender laws passed in 1994, Bryant’s attorney noted that there are some habitual offender laws that go as far back as 1928.
The laws also clearly affect the state’s Black population more than it does other racial and ethnic groups. According to the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana, Black people make up about 32 percent of Louisiana’s population but nearly 80 percent of the state’s habitual offenders.
A bipartisan criminal justice reform package in 2017 saw the state enact changes to the habitual offender law. The law removed the life sentence for people who receive a fourth non-violent conviction and reduced the mandatory minimum sentences for those who committed repeat offenses, The New York Times reported. Two years later, Democratic Governor John Bel Edwards signed a bill that eliminated sentence enhancements for some nonviolent offenses.
As part of Bryant’s parole, he will have to conduct community service, attend mandatory Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, stick to a strict 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew and check in with his parole officer once a week for 60 days. Bryant was released to the Louisiana Parole Project, which helps formerly incarcerated individuals readjust to life. After his stint with the nonprofit, he will live with his brother in Shreveport, Louisiana.
About the Author
Nicole Rojas is a senior writer for The North Star. She has published in various publications, including Newsweek, GlobalPost, IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, and the Long Island Post. Nicole graduated from Boston University in 2012 with a degree in print journalism. She is an avid world traveler who recently explored the Americas, Asia, Australia and Europe.