According to a documentary written a few years ago, one of America’s largest maximum security prisons is the Louisiana State Penitentiary, more well-known as ‘Angola’ Prison
What does life imprisonment or a life sentence means? It could vary from state to state, but in all states, it is a sentence of imprisonment for a serious crime under which the convicted person could possibly remain locked up for the rest of his or her life. Crimes for which a person could receive this sentence include–but is not limited to–murder, severe child abuse, rape, high treason, severe or violent cases of drug dealing or human trafficking, mayhem, or aggravated cases of burglary, robbery or arson that resulting in death or grievous bodily harm.
Sometimes a sentence is handed down specifically stating ‘life without the possibility of parole’–in such cases, it does mean natural life or until death, notwithstanding the 8th Amendment’s ban on ‘cruel and unusual’ punishment–for minors–in the case of Graham v. Florida.
Kenneth “Biggy” Johnston is a Criminal Law Specialist (he lets everyone know, “it’s Biggy with a ‘y’ not ‘ie’) and Eugene Dean–both from Louisiana–were in Los Angeles attending a drug conference, and they stopped by the Los Angeles Sentinel.
“First of all, I went to Vietnam … I got drafted in 1969 … and while in Vietnam, I got involved with drugs,” Biggy began. “As a result of my involvement with drugs, when I came back home, I tried to pull off a robbery and in the process, the victim drew a gun, couldn’t get it out of his holster, and I had a decision to make; I ended up shooting him. That was in 1972 and I was sentenced to ‘life’.
“Years later, PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) became known … around that time (1972), it wasn’t known … nobody knew what it was. In “79, when PTSD became known, I realized that it fitted my situation.
“Before (I went to) Vietnam, I was an A-student … no trouble … no criminal record and Vietnam transformed me into the person who ended up with a life sentence or as I would say, had it not been for Vietnam, I would have never ended up in prison. And there’s proof because, right now, I collect disability for it … I was subsequently diagnosed. But had it been viable then, I would have had a viable defense.”
Then Biggy explained that unlike agent orange where one had to be sprayed or come in contact with the chemical to be affected by it, PTSD was an equal opportunity tragedy–just being there in Vietnam, it was possible to acquire PTSD. “It was a mental thing,” according to Biggy, “and you have to have been in combat.”
The story of Biggy’s prison experience began when he tells how he got out and became somewhat of a criminal law expert despite that fact that he had a life sentence.
“While in prison, I became a paralegal, and in the course of me helping a lot of people get out of prison, I became well-known for this,” Biggy continued. “I was also pursuing my (own) freedom. Even though it took 2 decades, I eventually–because of my paralegal skills–was able to convince a court of law, that because of the PTSD and the circumstances surrounding my crime–I was able to convince a parole board to release me. That was 1993.”
Biggy was housed in the Louisiana State Penitentiary (LSP, also known as Angola, and nicknamed the ‘Alcatraz of the South’ and ‘The Farm’) a prison farm in Louisiana operated by the Louisiana Department of Public Safety & Corrections.
It is located on an 18,000 acre property that was previously the Angola and other plantations close to the Mississippi border. The state’s death row and its execution chamber are there, and the names ‘Louisiana State Penitentiary’ and ‘Angola’, are used interchangeably.
“Since 1993, I’ve been an active paralegal in the city of New Orlean
s working with criminal defense attorneys,” Biggy said.
In L.A. to attend a conference that included a ‘formerly incarcerated people’ movement, he said, “That movement is multi-faceted; basically, it is designed to reduce mass jail population. It is advocating that … the majority of people in prison are people of color, and because of economical circumstances, social circumstances, the majority of prisons are filled with people of color. And some of the states with sentencing laws that are so antiquated … so old that they are incarcerating people for years and years–and especially in Louisiana–without any opportunity to be released.
“The ‘formerly incarcerated people'(group) is trying to reach back and change these laws, and as far as our involvement with it from New Orleans, we recognize that in Louisiana, because you have been convicted of a crime, you do not have the right to vote. So we created an organization called ‘VOTE’ which stands for ‘Voice Of The Ex-offender’. And what we have been doing, for the last five to six years, is advising ex-prisoners–‘formerly incarcerated people’–of their right to vote … because a lot of these guys don’t even know that they have the right to vote.
“We’ve even been to the jails in New Orleans and registering guys who are awaiting trial. By them not being convicted, they did not lose the right to vote,” said Biggy.
“At the conference (in L.A.) yesterday,” he said, “I believe that it’s only three states that allow people, who are incarcerated, to vote. So we are trying to go with this movement to say, that even if you are incarcerated, you don’t lose that right to vote. So that is our purpose … the group from New Orleans.”
In addition to his work as a paralegal and his involvement with the ‘formerly incarcerated people’ group, Biggy also conducts a class named ‘Street Law’ class, designed to educate young people how to handle themselves when and if, they encounter the police officer, for whatever reason.