Charles Amos, who served 28 years in Louisiana State Penitentiary for second-degree murder before winning his release six months ago, cried recently at Manhattan College in Kelly Commons while watching a multimedia project of people like him.
Nearly 5,000 people are sentenced to die in Louisiana prisons without the possibility of parole, and they are disproportionately Black. Face-to-Face with Life Without Parole: The Visiting Room project is an extensive collection of testimonies of men serving life sentences. The project producer made a presentation to a room of mostly Manhattan College students.
“After an enormous amount of effort — that I won’t go into,’ said co-creator Marcus Kondkar, Ph.D. , a sociology professor at Loyola University. “I was finally given access to begin recording, interviews in a private classroom in the prisons, education building.”
Kondkar conducted more than 100 interviews with inmates without the possibility of parole in Louisiana State Penitentiary, whose nickname is Angola, the oldest and largest maximum-security prison in the United States. It gained that name from the former plantation it sits on, which is derived from the African nation where the plantation’s slaves came from.
Many inmates still pick cotton till this day making about 2 cents an hour.
“To be here is a miracle,” Amos said to The Riverdale Press about being at Kelly Commons.
Amos was convicted in 1994 of committing second-degree murder. He was released on testimony from the father of the man he killed. His life was saved from prison about six months ago and he now works towards prison reform.
Kondkar was invited to Manhattan College and gained 11 sponsors from various programs and departments at Manhattan College to show his videos of short profiles taken from longer interviews.
“The project’s point was to create a space to know, see and hear,” Kondkar said.
Inmates are “thinking about how they ended up at that at that point, and what is their story? Their stories a lot more than just what got them in prison,” said Dennis Kalob, visiting assistant sociology professor at Manhattan College.
The presentation about 30 minutes long with interviews lasting around 10- minutes — while the full interview is around one hour. Each man converses with Kondkar differently. Many spoke about their life before committing their crime. Some explained their interests and hobbies, and many expressed sincere regrets about their life choices.
These men entered prison in their teens and 20s. They have been there for more than 20 years.
“When I came here, I was 17, I’m 80 year’s old now,” saidone of the interviewees Sammi Robinson while giving himself a minute to not cry. “I survived.”
Robinson was the longest-serving prisoner in Louisiana, having served 66 years. He died in 2019 at 83.
“E3MC is where it started, then the rest of my Department of Sociology, then gradually other departments to see if they’d like to join in as co-sponsors as well,” Kalob said in describing Manhattan College’s Engaging, Educating, Empowering Means Change program. It is a multi-partner initiative that offers free college-level courses to those incarcerated and formerly incarcerated in New York City.
Besides the sponsors, who raised $2,500 for airfare, hotels and refreshments, the presentation was only possible because Kalob had brought the idea to programs and departments to make the event a reality.
“Every single person I asked — every program, every department — agreed to co-sponsor they thought this was important enough that they could be a part of,” Kalob said.
Last year, Kalob sent articles of The Visiting Room Project to the E3MC.
Religious studies professor Andrew Skotnicki founded E3MC in 2012 for consecutive academic semesters at Rikers Island and has expanded to Westchester County Jail in 2018. In 2022, the program began offering summer courses at the Horizon Juvenile Center in the south Bronx.
Inmates “can’t get their degree through our program while in prison, so it’s a class that’s offered in full core college class — 300 level class,” said Savannah Wiza, E3MC coordinator. “Once they pass and they’re released, they come here for the rest of their college education.”
Once they receive three credits “inside” and 12 credits “outside” with a total of 15, they can receive a state-accredited certificate and eventually matriculate as a full-time student at Manhattan College.
After the presentation, Amos briefly spoke and fielded questions. One audience member asked him, “how much did you get paid?” Amos wanted her to guess and her answer was 5 cents an hour.
“Oh, I was much more rich — I was getting 20 cents,” he said.
He had various jobs once he started educating himself. He was a videographer. He was also a librarian and brought books to the guys that no one wanted to be around because they were in cells.
“I wasn’t educated at all and in fact, my education came through the prison system,” Amos said. “I was supposed to be intelligent, but my childhood diverted me.”
He explained to The Riverdale Press the school he went to Angola normally guaranteed a continued education after release — similar to Manhattan College.
Amos earned a bachelor’s degree in Christian ministry.”I’m a preacher,” he said.
The New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary is Angola’s only higher education learning center. And that is because of the elimination of Pell grants for incarcerated students in 1994.
Before that aid was cut, prisoner received vocational training in welding and culinary arts, Amos said. Funding for GED programs also started to go away.
During the same year of his release, the fiscal year 2022 budget request for the New York State Board of Corrections totaled $3.8 billion, an increase of $470,000 from the fiscal year 2023.
The 2024 fiscal year executive budget for the Department of Corrections is now $3.5 billion, an increase of $8.26 million from the previous fiscal year. This increase was due to the enhancement of parole supervision and salary increases.
To fund inmate food, it costs $2.84 per individual per day, the Times-Union of Albany found.
According to statistica, roughly 35 percent of inmates facing the death penalty did not receive their GED or diploma roughly, while 44.4 percent received the achievement but did not graduate from college.
At the end of 2020, federal legislation was passed to restore Pell funding to all incarcerated individuals by the fall of 2023. Later, in 2022 the New York State legislature repealed the ban on the Tuition Assistance Program for incarcerated New York residents, according to the State University of New York.
The Prison Policy Initiative, a non-profit, nonpartisan initiative that produces cutting-edge research to expose the broader harm of mass criminalization, used data from a 2016 survey of inmates conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
They found 43 percent of state prisoners participated in educational programming even though 62 percent had not completed high school.
Many of the male prisoners began to think they shouldn’t be in prison anymore, Amos explained to the crowd at Manhattan College.
Kondkar explained those changes.
“Most people don’t know about the changes that people go through behind prison walls, because we don’t have any access to them,” Kondkar said. “One of the consequences of designing prisons to keep people in is that they keep the rest of us out, we focus on the crime of conviction.
“Once you humanize somebody it’s so much harder, just dismiss them.”
“I know one thing,” Robinson said during his video interview. “I need to be out. I would go somewhere and make me a living and start over again. They say the older you get, the more you learn. Well, I learnt a lot of things.
“Like I said, I’ve been here whole my life. I never had a chance to get out ‘cause I’ve been here all my life.”