Remnants of "pig laws" continue to oppress African Americans in the United States. Fair Wayne Bryant was one of them.
Fair Wayne Bryant, a Black man from Louisiana, was granted parole on Thursday last week after the state Supreme Court initially denied his appeal, CNN reports. According to court records, he was sentenced to prison for life in 1997 for stealing hedge clippers. The former inmate was convicted on one count of attempted simple burglary. This is, nonetheless, not a cause for celebration. Bryant's imprisonment is the modern-day manifestation of the country's historical racial oppression. Even in 2020, a broken justice system continues to disproportionately hurt people of color, particularly Black folks. Though Bryant may finally be free, nothing will make up for the decades he lost while serving a punishment that was heavier than necessary, simply because he is Black.
Fair Wayne Bryant was released from the Louisiana State Penitentiary just a little while ago. Welcome home, Fair! pic.twitter.com/2FmIpmww2w— Sister Helen Prejean (@helenprejean) October 15, 2020
Unfortunately, Bryant's sentence was sanctioned under the habitual offender law. This means his sentence was warranted due to previous criminal history. Prior to being convicted for simple burglary, he was convicted in 1979 for attempted armed robbery, in 1987 for possession of stolen things, in 1989 for attempted forgery of a check worth $150, and in 1992 for simple burglary of an inhabited dwelling. While his pattern of behavior may indicate a need for strict punishment, it in reality exemplifies the need to address systemic injustices such as poverty and racism. Louisiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Bernette Johnson recognized this as the only dissenting opinion in August when Bryant's case was sent for appeal.
After nearly 24 years of incarceration, Fair Wayne Bryant walked out of Angola this afternoon. His story reminds us that extreme prison sentences do not benefit society. We are committed to helping him rebuild his life. https://t.co/wJSqdYrCl2 pic.twitter.com/UNVvsUAzCT— Louisiana Parole Project (@paroleproject) October 15, 2020
Five of the six state Supreme Court justices upheld his life sentence and denied his appeal, but Justice Johnson affirmed that his case was the "modern manifestation" of "pig laws" created in the years following Reconstruction. These laws unfairly penalized African Americans for crimes such as stealing a farm animal. They stayed on the books for several decades and became even more discriminatory once the Jim Crow era began. She wrote, "[The laws] criminalized recently emancipated African American citizens by introducing extreme sentences for petty theft associated with poverty."
I’m overjoyed to share that Fair Wayne Bryant was granted parole this morning and will be leaving prison today! Many thanks to the Louisiana @paroleproject for representing Fair before the parole board and accepting him into a great re-entry program. https://t.co/bwweIm1Sjz— Sister Helen Prejean (@helenprejean) October 15, 2020
Alanah Odoms, the executive director of the ACLU of Louisiana, said of Bryant's release, "While nothing can make up for the years Mr. Bryant lost to this extreme and unjust sentence, today's decision by the parole board is a long-overdue victory for Mr. Bryant, his family, and the cause of equal justice for all." She said it was now time to reexamine the habitual offender law because of which the man suffered for so many years. Odoms affirmed, "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."