Black man, 63, sentenced to life for stealing ‘never met a white person’ convicted under the same law
A black man who was sentenced to life in prison in 1997 after stealing a pair of hedge trimmers says he has “never met a white prisoner” who has been convicted under the same law as himself.
Fair Wayne Bryant, 63, spent 23 years in Louisiana Jail in Angola after being convicted under the state’s Habitual Offender Statute – which could face more severe sentences for those with previous convictions.
He was paroled last October and appeared in the BBC2 documentary The Black American Fight For Freedom, investigating racial inequality in the US, more than half a century after the introduction of the Civil Rights Act.
Bryant’s criminal record included 22 arrests and 11 convictions – but only one from the 1970s was for a violent crime, and he initially thought his mandatory life sentence would be quashed.
He highlighted the disproportionate number of black prisoners he encountered during his time behind bars – he claimed he had never met a white person in prison who had been convicted under the common offender law.
Fair Wayne Bryant, 63, spent 23 years in the Louisiana prison in Angola for stealing a pair of hedge trimmers in 1997 after being convicted under the state’s Habitual Offender Statute
He was paroled last October and appeared in the BBC2 documentary The Black American Fight For Freedom, in which he explored racial inequality in the US.
“The morning after I was found guilty by the jury, the district attorney filed the Common Offenders Act with me,” Bryant said. “He filed the bill with three strikes, as you call it, to give me a mandatory life sentence.
‘What went through my mind at the time was that it was going to be overthrown. That was what I expected from the justice system all along.
Louisiana has a notoriously high incarceration rate, recording in March of this year as 680 per 100,000 people. In April 2021, the number of people serving prison terms in Louisiana under the statute of common offenders was 3,591.
Research shows that ethnic minorities are over-represented in US prisons. According to a 2010 census, the number of black people incarcerated per 100,000 was 2,749, compared to 675 whites.
He commented on the disproportionate number of black prisoners he noticed during his time behind bars – claiming that he had never met a white person in prison who had been convicted under the common offenders law
“To really understand the justice system in Louisiana, just go back and look at the convictions,” Bryant said. ‘What kind of people have they convicted? How much? That will tell you pretty much everything you need to know.
‘Of the people I met, the guys I met who came to Angola were black, who had imposed the usual offender law.
“I have not found, the whole time I was in Angola, I have not found a single white person to whom they applied the common offender law.”
Bryant was convicted of breaking and entering the storage area of a carport in his hometown of Shreveport. At the time of his conviction, four of his eleven convictions were felonies.
In 1979 he was sentenced to ten years in prison for the attempted armed robbery of a taxi driver. His other crimes were possession of stolen property in 1987, attempted forgery in 1989 and burglary in 1992.
What Are Frequent Violators Laws?
Ordinary offender laws are used to stop a person who has already been convicted of a crime from committing another crime.
Penal systems around the world provide longer prison terms for those with convictions than for first-time offenders.
Also known as the ‘three strikes’ law, the legislation imposes severe penalties for petty crimes.
Louisiana ordinary offender statute states that an offender who has already been convicted of more than one crime will receive a longer sentence.
With each subsequent conviction, an offender receives longer sentences.
Prior to 2017, a person in Louisiana could be sentenced to life in prison after receiving a fourth non-violent conviction under the law.
The case made headlines last August when the Louisiana Supreme Court rejected a request for review of his case. Bryant had appealed the life sentence in 2000 as unconstitutional disproportionate.
Chief Justice Bernette Johnson wrote that the law on common offenders was a “modern manifestation” of “pig laws” aimed at unfairly imprisoning black people for petty crimes.
Each of these crimes was an attempt to steal something. Such petty theft is often driven by the ravages of poverty or addiction, and often both, ”Johnson wrote in her blistering dissent.
“It is cruel and unusual to get a life sentence in forced labor for the criminal behavior most often caused by poverty or addiction.”
She also pointed out that his incarceration had already cost the American taxpayer more than half a million dollars.
After being denied parole on three previous occasions, Bryant was finally released in October 2020.
The head of the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana, Alanah Odoms, called the decision to release Bryant “a long time ago.”
“ Now it is imperative that lawmakers repeal the law on many offenders that allow these unfair punishments, and that prosecutors across the state immediately stop seeking extreme punishment for minor offenses, ” she said.
The parole spoke at length about Bryant’s history of alcohol and cocaine use prior to his release.
Conditions of his parole included compulsory attendance at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, curfew and community service.
“I had a drug problem,” Bryant said after his release in October. “But I have had 24 years to acknowledge that problem and be in constant contact with the Lord to help me with that problem.”
After his release, Bryant was assisted by the Louisiana Parole Project, a nonprofit that helps released inmates adjust to life after prison.
The charity has since started fundraising page to provide financial support and rebuild Bryant’s life.
The Black American Fight for Freedom airs tonight at 9pm on BBC2