Home > Uncategorized > Fair Wayne Bryant wins parole – posted 10/18/2020

Fair Wayne Bryant wins parole – posted 10/18/2020

Back in August I wrote a column about Fair Wayne Bryant, an African American man from Louisiana who was serving a life term in prison for stealing a pair of hedge clippers. The Louisiana Parole Board has now voted 3-0 to parole Bryant. After 24 years in prison, Bryant is a free man.

Bryant was a victim of Louisiana’s habitual offender laws. Such laws allow prosecutors to seek harsher sentences if a person had prior convictions. Bryant had four felonies although only one was for a violent offense.

The Parole Board noted that Bryant had participated in drug and anger management programs when in prison. His only prison infraction over the last five years was a write up for cigarettes.

He has the support of the Louisiana Parole Project, a non-profit that helps released prisoners adjust to freedom. Bryant plans to live with his brother in Shreveport. Under the ruling of the Parole Board, Bryant must abide by a 9pm to 6am curfew, must perform community service and participate in Alcoholics Anonymous.

After the parole hearing, Bryant’s lawyer, Robert Lancaster, commented:

“Because of his prior history of petty crimes to fuel a drug addiction, Mr. Bryant was sentenced to a life in prison rather than given the help he needed to recover from his drug addiction. Finally, after 24 years in prison, he has been given a second chance.”

It is worth noting that Bryant had previously been denied parole three times in 2015, 2018 and 2019. It was only after the Louisiana Supreme Court denied Bryant’s request for review of his sentence this year that the momentum shifted and Bryant’s parole efforts gained traction.

The media covered the story because the punishment was so disproportionate to the crime and also because the Chief Justice of Louisiana’s Supreme Court, Bernette Johnson, dissented from the Court’s decision. Chief Justice Johnson, the only African American on the Court, wrote a scathing opinion.

She wrote that Bryant’s sentence was a modern manifestation of Jim Crow era laws where black people were jailed for petty offenses. Those laws were called Pig Laws and they were widely used in the South in the period after Reconstruction ended and for many years after.

I know one question jumped out at me when I learned about Fair Bryant’s case: how could he have gotten such an extreme sentence? I think the answer to that question is impossible to understand without a grasp of Black history.

Exceedingly harsh penalties were meted out for property crimes related to poverty. “Crimes” like vagrancy, insulting gestures, unemployment or starting a job without the approval of the previous employer were common. In the aftermath of slavery, the white power structure used Southern criminal law as a form of social control.

While the oppression of slavey is now more recognized, the systematic abuse of the court system to hold hundreds of thousands of African Americans in a different form of slavery remains underappreciated. The period of time after 1877 was a re-enslavement process. In his book, Slavery By Another Name, Douglas Blackmon describes how it worked.

Convicts had no meaningful rights. Many were hit with court costs and fines which had to be worked off to pay their debt to the state. Prisoners were sold as forced labor to farms, plantations, lumber camps, railroads and Southern corporations. Many died in performing this work and many more were subject to brutal conditions including lashing.

The Thirteenth Amendment to the federal constitution outlawed slavery but it included one exception: slavery and involuntary servitude were unconstitutional except as punishment for crime. This exception turned out to be a gaping hole. The exception allowed convict leasing and later chain gangs and prison farms. This was especially true after federal troops left the South and the Democrats of the later 19th century installed a totalitarian system.

Fair Bryant’s extreme punishment is closely related to this racist history and is essentially a continuation of earlier racist practice. Black people make up 79% of those convicted as habitual offenders. The majority of people (69%) who serve time in Louisiana under the habitual offender statute are there for non-violent crimes.

The habitual offender law is carrying on into the 21st century the racist system where black people were jailed for long periods for petty crimes. Except superficially, the South has still not reckoned with its history

After Fair Bryant’s parole, the Executive Director of the Louisiana ACLU, Alanah Odoms, said,

“Now it is imperative that the Legislature repeal the habitual offender law that allows for these unfair sentences and for district attorneys across the state to immediately stop seeking extreme penalties for minor offenses.”

It is great Fair Bryant got parole. It was long overdue. No one can give him back the years he lost because of his unjust sentence. However, we can consider all the other Fair Bryants who languish in prison under similar circumstances.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Patricia Dawson
    October 18, 2020 at 8:54 pm

    Thank you for updating the story. It would be nice if this was the beginning of the turning of the tide.

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