NEW ORLEANS – On a warm October day, 84-year-old Lester Pearson uses a cane to slowly walk out of the Louisiana State Penitentiary as a free man. After 57 years in the Angola prison, the path to freedom in a state dubbed the “incarceration capital of the world” has been a long and uncertain one.
Since 1964, Pearson has been locked up for murder after signing a plea agreement in which he was promised a chance at parole after serving 10 years and 6 months. It never happened.
At the time, Pearson said a guilty plea was the best hope for a Black man charged with murder and facing the electric chair in the Jim Crow South. The former geriatric prisoner is slower, noticeably quiet, hard of hearing, and struggles with his words.
After those 10 years and 6 months, “no one ever told me nothing,” Pearson told the PBS NewsHour.
“I always thought that I’d die in prison. I’ve seen so many people die,” he said, three weeks after being released. “I’m not mad about it, I’m disgusted. I did way more than my time. I’m not the same person.”
The Louisiana Parole Project said Pearson is one of approximately 60 so-called “10/6 lifers” in the Louisiana State Penitentiary – commonly known as “Angola” – who plead guilty not only to avoid execution, but also with the understanding they would have a chance at freedom after a decade. Today, they range in age from 66 to 86.
Five 10/6 lifers have recently been released after more than 50 years behind bars. Prison reform advocates pushing for their release said it’s long overdue to address the broken promises of the past for the aging population.
“The goal post shifted and the door was slammed on these men. They were essentially forgotten.”
“Back then, it was an overwhelmingly enticing offer [to avoid execution]. I think that our clients accepted that offer and then to have that promise broken; it is a real travesty of justice,” said Jane Hogan, an attorney with the Louisiana Parole Project. “The goal post shifted and the door was slammed on these men. They were essentially forgotten, and efforts at having the deal honored were basically ignored.”
The Parole Project is a nonprofit spearheading the “Forgotten Men Project” to free inmates who have served extreme sentences, with special consideration for Black prisoners. Andrew Hundley, the executive director of the Parole Project, said 80 percent of the 10/6 lifers and 73 percent of all inmates serving life sentences at Angola are Black.
“If you were a Black person in the 1960s that received a life sentence after a plea …….