The Visiting Room Documents the Stories of People Sentenced to Life in Prison Without Parole


New York Times Opinion

Over 55,000 people in the U.S. are currently sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Thousands of those people are incarcerated at Angola Prison in Louisiana, which sentences more people to life in prison than any other state in the country.

A documentary project called The Visiting Room has interviewed over 100 people who have been sentenced to die in prison at Angola with the hope of giving broad audiences a view into the lives of people serving lengthy sentences, as well as their transformations.

“Most people only hear about us when our crime happens, but we have changed and we invite you to sit down with us now decades later to meet the people we have become,” Terry Pierce, who is incarcerated at Angola, shares in an introductory video for the project.

The dozens of interviews published in The Visiting Room’s archive reflect the reality of life at Angola; the people interviewed are disproportionately Black, and most have been convicted of crimes that occurred when they were young adults.

Many of those interviewed have dedicated their time in prison to rehabilitating themselves and those around them. Some have tutored incarcerated elderly people while others have worked their way up to prestigious jobs at the prison. None of the men are the same people they were in their youth.

“How could you take a 19-year-old person, and just take the worst decision he ever made and hold him responsible for it for the rest of his entire life and not even consider that he may have changed?” Hannibal Stanfield asks in his interview.

The Visiting Room project was started by Marcus Kondkar, chair of the sociology department at Loyola University, and Calvin Duncan, an expert in post-conviction law who was wrongfully convicted and spent nearly three decades at Angola before being exonerated.

Rather than campaign for specific policy outcomes, The Visiting Room sheds light on the inhumanity of severe punishments like life imprisonment without the possibility of parole and centers the stories of those who experience the impact of these long standing policies firsthand.

“If I have to die here, I appreciate this opportunity to be able to let my voice be heard,” says Arthur Carter, who has served more than 30 years of a life sentence at Angola.

In recent years, several states have enacted or debated new laws that would offer people serving lengthy sentences a chance at parole. Earlier this year, the bipartisan U.S. Sentencing Commission proposed amendments to federal sentencing guidelines that would broaden the circumstances for release for elderly incarcerated people.