Giving Inmates with Life Sentences 2nd Chance Is Right Thing to Do

George Toca
George Toca

I went to prison as a child and was expected to die there. After more than 30 years and a number of legal developments, I walked out of the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola as a free man on Jan. 29, 2015.

That is why I was overjoyed when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Montgomery v. Louisiana that everyone sentenced to mandatory life without parole as a child is eligible for review. I was thrilled for the hundreds of men I know at Angola who were told as children that they would leave prison only in a pine box.

Louisiana is one of the top five states in the country that send children to prison for life without parole. No other country in the world does that.

Those men will now get a chance to prove they have changed and deserve a chance at release. I am especially happy for my friend Henry Montgomery, the petitioner in the Supreme Court case. He is nearly 70 years old and has been at Angola for 52 years.

I was sentenced to life parole when I was 17, after I was accused of killing my friend during a robbery. Even though I maintain my innocence, I faced the same reality of every other youth sentenced to life without parole: I was never to live in free society as an adult.

Then, in late 2014, after years of legal battles, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear my petition arguing that their decision in Miller v. Alabama, which banned mandatory sentences of life without parole for children, should apply to me and everyone else sentenced before the ruling in June 2012. When the court agreed to review my case, I and the hundreds of men serving the sentence at Angola were hopeful that we finally had a chance. It was a blessing that God had given and it impacted not only me.

But our celebrations ended quickly. Prosecutors in Orleans Parish, where I was sentenced, offered me a deal that would allow me to plead guilty to a lesser charge and get out of prison immediately. On one hand, I was excited to leave prison. At the same time, I knew I was not guilty.

I also felt like I was letting the other guys down. I had spent years with those guys. A lot of us had become friends and we had all been looking for a case to come up and help those of us at Angola. They told me they were disappointed in me.

[Related: Juveniles, Their Advocates Unhappy with Lack of Re-entry Resources from LA Probation]

But even though my case was being considered, my lawyers had made clear to me that there were no guarantees. The court might not rule in my favor, or if they did, I still might not get parole. I was really tired of being in prison. My faith in the justice system had been stolen. The uncertainty of that led me to take the plea.

It really hurt me when I chose to do it and end the chance others had to get out. One of the people I left behind was my friend Henry Montgomery. We’re really close and we worked really near each other in the prison. I used to give him some of my vegetable seeds to plan in his garden.

I was relieved when the court took his case a few months later. The court ruled in his favor on Jan. 25, just four days before the one-year anniversary of my release. My hope now is that the guys get individualized sentencing reviews and a second chance.

I want them to have the same opportunity I have to build a life. The first thing I did when I got out is eat a meal at McDonalds and give my mother a big hug. Part of my job as an inmate minister, a role I took on after I finished seminary, was to give people the news when a loved one died. It was always my prayer that no one would have to deliver that message to me.

I got a chance to spend the last year of my mother’s life with her before she died earlier this year. We had some good times and laughs. I would like for it to have been longer and wanted to do a lot more with her, like take a cruise together, but I am grateful for what we had.

I also am working for a landscape company, which is the same work I did in prison. I am buying my first car. I am saving to purchase equipment to start my own company. I also want to meet a nice woman, get married and start a family.

I went to prison as a child. I turned 49 on Valentine’s Day. I have watched during the years as children have come into Angola. They have grown up and matured and many have become outstanding people. I know that many of them would do well if they were released.

The United States is built on second chances — and sometimes second and third chances. I am glad the guys at Angola — and the thousands of others throughout the country — will have an opportunity to demonstrate they deserve one.

George Toca was sentenced to life without parole in Louisiana at 17 for second-degree murder and spent more than 30 years in prison. After his appeals reached the U.S. Supreme Court, he was released from prison in 2015. He now lives in the New Orleans area.

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The Hidden Culture of Prison Violence

John Last 1

I don’t remember when I first heard of The Angolite, the only uncensored prison publication in the country. It was sometime during the late eighties. Since 1976, prisoners incarcerated at Louisiana’s notorious Angola Prison produced the magazine without censorship. The writers revealed the horrible conditions of the prison, shedding light on sexual slavery, murders and corruption.

The story that I most remember was about the gladiatorial games organized by inmates and supported by guards. Both prisoners and employees gambled extensively on the fights, which often involved weapons and improvised armor. It must have seemed surreal to people in the “free world” to read about this Mad Max–like dystopia, but to me it made perfect sense.

At the time I was at Alto, a hyper-violent youth prison in north Georgia. It was known as gladiator school, and though we didn’t have organized combat, there was a culture among the prisoners and guards supporting the belief that violence was normal. Guards would often turn a blind eye to assaults, robberies and other crimes. At times they would facilitate fights by letting inmates come together to settle their differences by combat.

This kind of violence is still alive and well in the United States. A few days ago The Wall Street Journal reported that the Department of Justice has opened an investigation into the 2008 death of 18-year-old Christopher Robinson. A week after the crime, The Village Voice reported Robinson was left to bleed to death over a 12-hour period after suffering a brutal beating. Last year, two guards pled guilty to running “The Program,” a plan to allow a gang of inmates, known as “The Team,” to extort other prisoners and administer beatings to those who failed to cooperate. A New York Daily News article makes the point that some of the inmates involved received 10-year sentences, while the two guards got “sweetheart” deals of less than two years. Robinson had refused to give the gang his commissary card.

Despite the New York Corrections Department’s assertion that juveniles are safer today because of personnel changes and new safety measures, similar stories continue to come out of the Robert N. Davoren Center where juveniles are held. The Journal reports that at least two lawsuits are moving through the courts brought by the Legal Aid Society, a New York-based not for profit organization.

Attorney Mary Lynee Werlwas is quoted in the Journal as saying, “I know as recently as last week we were getting complaints from inmates. These are people who have never been incarcerated before, and they're giving us the same stories we've heard for five years or more…The hallmark of 'the program' is that corrections officers are deputizing inmates to do their jobs…We've not seen anything change there."

Based on my own experience, I tend to believe the latest reports. Officials will deny wrongdoing and mistreatment, and may in fact be ignorant of it, until irrefutable evidence is brought against them. Then they will promise to make the necessary changes, assure the public that all is well and start the cycle of denial over again. Unfortunately, these places are at the bottom of society and the prisoners are outside the moral sphere of most citizens. That must change.