Home > Uncategorized > Fair Wayne Bryant: Way Past Time For Review – posted 8/15/2020 and published in the Concord Monitor on 8/24/2020

Fair Wayne Bryant: Way Past Time For Review – posted 8/15/2020 and published in the Concord Monitor on 8/24/2020

The case of Fair Wayne Bryant registered a small blip in the media and then quickly disappeared. This is all-too-typical about how our system deals with gross acts of racism by our judicial branch of government. Shock is followed by cynical acceptance and silence.

On July 31, the Louisiana Supreme Court refused to review Bryant’s request to review his sentence. Bryant has been serving a life sentence for stealing a pair of hedge clippers. So far, he has spent almost 23 years in prison. When arrested, he was 38 years old and now he is over 60.

He is a victim of habitual offender laws. He had prior convictions. In 1979, the state convicted Bryant of attempted armed robbery. He received a sentence of ten years at hard labor. That was his only violent offense. He had three subsequent crimes: possession of stolen goods in 1987, attempted forgery of a $150 check in 1989 and simple burglary of an inhabited dwelling in 1992.

Habitual offender laws allow prosecutors to seek harsher sentences for crimes that normally would not warrant them. The prosecutor can use the earlier convictions to seek the harsher sentence and that is what happened in Bryant’s case.

When the Louisiana Supreme Court reviewed Bryant’s request for review, the five white justices on the court denied the request. They provided no reason for the decision. The Chief Justice of that court, Bernette Johnson, an African American woman, dissented. Chief Justice Johnson argued that a “life sentence for a failed attempt to steal a set of hedge clippers is grossly out of proportion to the crime and serves no legitimate penal purpose”.

The sentence is so shocking and excessive and out of proportion to the crime alleged that you have to ask how this could happen. The answer is wrapped up in the history of American racism. Chief Justice Johnson explained it this way:

“In the years following Reconstruction, Southern states criminalized recently-emancipated African American citizens by introducing extreme sentences for petty theft associated with poverty. These measures enabled southern states to continue using forced-labor (as punishment for a crime) by African Americans even after the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment.”

Johnson went on to say these laws were called “Pig Laws”. She said they targeted actions such as stealing cattle or swine that were considered stereotypical “negro” behavior. The Pig Laws lowered the threshold for what constituted a crime and increased the severity of punishment.

In her dissent, Johnson wrote that Pig Laws were largely designed to re-enslave African Americans. Trivial offenses and many misdemeanors were treated as felonies, with harsh sentences and fines. Laborers had to work off their debts to secure their release.

The South never reconciled to the defeat of white supremacy after it lost the Civil War. Black Codes led to devices like Pig Laws and the first wave of prison mass incarceration in the 1870’s. Since slavery was no longer an option, the Southern white power structure created a new form of forced labor.

Tens of thousands of African Americans became victims of an aggressive enforcement of petty crimes like petty theft, vagrancy or “insulting gestures”. The South needed a cheap labor force and it created a system of convict leasing where prisoners were contracted out as laborers to the highest private bidder. When federal troops left the South in 1877, the last protection for black people was removed. African Americans of that era became slaves by another name.

That system went on for decades until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s. Cases like Fair Bryant’s are just a new version of the same old Pig Laws. About 80% of people in Louisiana incarcerated under the habitual offender laws are black. Such laws are, without a doubt, a driver of mass incarceration.

Chief Justice Johnson pointed out in her dissent that since his conviction in 1997, Bryant’s incarceration has cost Louisiana taxpayers approximately $518,667.

In this case, the five white justices on the Louisiana Supreme Court rubber-stamped judicial savagery. Since they offered no explanation, we do not know why. In effect, their collective knees remain on the neck of Fair Bryant.

There is no substitute for protest. Sister Helen Prejean, of Dead Man Walking fame, has suggested some good ideas, from writing letters, to firing off messages on social media, to signing a petition on change.org demanding Bryant’s release. The Governor of Louisiana, John Bel Edwards, can grant clemency and free Mr. Bryant. As citizens, we have the power to call this out and try to bring attention to the case.

Sister Helen suggested writing Bryant. His mailing address is:

Fair Wayne Bryant, #91967
Cypress 3
Louisiana State Penitentiary
Angola, LA 70712

I imagine it might be encouraging to get some support after 23 years behind bars. On her website at sisterhelen.org, Sister Helen lists do’s and don’ts so the letter will get to him.

The prison where Bryant has been held in Angola was the site of a former slave plantation. His case shows we are not that far away from that time. Bryant has more than paid his debt to society. He deserves clemency and a pardon immediately.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. rwise65@tds.net
    August 16, 2020 at 11:27 am

    I was deeply distressed by your column today.

    I was one of those who was totally unaware of the Fair Wayne Bryant case.

    I look forward to sending him a letter.

    Best. Ronni

    Sent from my iPad


  2. Susan Burns
    August 16, 2020 at 1:45 pm

    It is so hard to fathoM that this could still be taking place, and that there is not more scrutiny.


    • August 16, 2020 at 4:00 pm

      Hi Susan, it does still seem to be happening.

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