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A Black man serving a life sentence for stealing hedge clippers is granted parole after nearly 24 years in prison

Fair Wayne Bryant, who received a life sentence for attempting to steal hedge clippers in 1997, walked out of Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola last week. (Kerry Myers/Louisiana Parole Project)

In the most incarcerated state in the country, Fair Wayne Bryant has known little but prison in his adult life.

Since 1997, the 63-year-old Black man has been locked up in Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola — the largest maximum-security facility prison in the United States, named in part after the former slave plantation it replaced — for stealing a pair of hedge clippers.

Bryant never stopped fighting his life sentence, taking to court and repeatedly submitting requests for parole after three past convictions turned that attempted theft charge into a life sentence. On Thursday, he was finally able to walk out of Angola.

The Louisiana Committee on Parole voted 3-0 last week to grant parole to Bryant, whose stunning case offered a stark illustration of the consequences of the state’s severe laws for repeat offenders and prompted an outcry from criminal justice advocates in the state and beyond.

He got life for stealing hedge clippers. The Louisiana Supreme Court says it’s a fair sentence.

The committee’s decision to release Bryant comes more than two months after the state Supreme Court denied his request to review his life sentence. Most of the seven justices backed that decision over the summer, but the court’s lone Black judge delivered a fiery dissent in response. Chief Justice Bernette Johnson directly connected Bryant’s situation to the “Pig Laws” that had been designed to keep Black people in poverty during Reconstruction.

“This case demonstrates their modern manifestation: harsh habitual offender laws that permit a life sentence for a Black man convicted of property crimes,” she wrote, her words first reported by the Lens NOLA, a nonprofit news site in New Orleans.

These rules, sometimes known as “three-strikes” laws, allow prosecutors to seek harsher sentences for lesser crimes if a defendant has previous convictions. They have drawn heavy scrutiny for driving mass incarceration and exacerbating racial inequities in a state with an incarceration rate that has long surpassed nearly all others.

Although some provisions were wiped away due to a major criminal justice reforms reform package in 2017, drastic racial inequities remain: Though Black people make up about one-third of Louisiana’s population, they account for nearly three-quarters of all state prisoners with life sentences.

Bryant was — until very recently — one of them.

He was first convicted in 1979, serving 10 years for the attempted armed robbery of a cabdriver. His following three convictions were nonviolent, including charges for possessing some stolen goods from a Radio Shack and trying to forge a $150 check. In 1992, he broke into a home and stole personal property, which resulted in another four years in prison.

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When a jury convicted him of attempted simple burglary five years later over the hedge clippers, prosecutors invoked the habitual offender laws to obtain a life sentence without parole. Because Bryant had four prior felony convictions, the sentence was legal at the time under Louisiana statutes, prosecutors said.

In 2000, he had spent so much time behind bars earlier that when he tried to argue his way out in an appeal of his case, a state appeals court said his lengthy history in prison justified that punishment. At that point, they argued, Bryant’s few years in the outside world meant there was “ample support” for the sentence.

By 2015, parole specifications under Louisiana law allowed him to be considered for parole. He petitioned and was swiftly denied.

All the while, he fought through the courts, arguing he had received an illegal sentence and should have been appointed a lawyer during a resentencing hearing. When his sentence was changed to life with the possibility of parole in 2018, he applied for parole two more times. He would be denied both times.

As news of Johnson’s dissent brought his case to the attention of several criminal justice and civil rights groups, Bryant was granted his fourth parole hearing just a couple of weeks later.

During the video conference last week, the committee’s members said Bryant’s struggles with drug addiction largely fueled his past crimes. Although he repeatedly came in and out of Louisiana’s criminal justice system, those issues were for the most part untreated.

“There’s no question in my mind that your heart and head are in the right place,” board member Tony Marabella told him before voting to grant parole, according to the New Orleans Advocate. “We just want you to remain clean and sober. We don’t want you to come back.”

As other board members echoed that sentiment, Bryant said he had undergone substance abuse counseling at Angola.

“That made me aware that I did have a problem with drugs and that I needed some help,” he told the board, speaking via video conference from Angola. “I’ve had 24 years to recognize that problem and be in constant conversation with the Lord to help me with that problem.”

On the outside, Bryant will be required to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, follow a curfew of 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. and engage in community service, the Associated Press reported. He hopes to eventually join his brother’s family in Shreveport, La.

But first, he will begin readjusting to freedom in Baton Rouge with the support of the Louisiana Parole Project, which offers transitional housing and reentry help to former inmates ending long prison sentences.

Andrew Hundley, the organization’s executive director, said there is far more work to be done for other returning citizens in Louisiana like him.

“Our organization believes in Mr. Bryant and we are committed to helping him rebuild his life,” Hundley said in a statement to The Washington Post. “Fair spent nearly 24 years in prison. His case reminds us that extreme prison sentences do not benefit society.”