SHREVEPORT, La. (KTAL/KMSS) – A Shreveport man will speak before the United Nations in August, making a case to eliminate racial discrimination in the criminal justice system.
Terrance Winn, a 48-year-old Cooper Road resident, will speak to the United Nations Committee on Racial Discrimination on Aug 11 and 12 in Geneva, Switzerland.
Winn is not a politician or a well-connected diplomat. He is a man that made a poor choice in a heated moment. This choice caused him to learn first-hand how inequitable the criminal judicial system can be.
On the night of Dec 25, 1989, when he was 16 years old, Winn got into a fight. During the brawl, he fired a weapon, injured the person he was fighting, and fatally shot a bystander.
He recalls watching the judge presiding over his case hand down more lenient sentences to white offenders with similar charges.
One of those cases involved an incident that many believe was the catalyst for the 1988 Cedar Grove Riot. In Sep 1988, a deal went sour when 17-year-old Tamala Vergo purchased crack cocaine and fatally shot an innocent bystander. Vergo was later sentenced to ten years in prison in 1990.
Winn was sentenced to natural life in 1991. He was sent to Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola to serve his sentence. When he arrived, he was the prison’s youngest inmate.
He earned his GED within the first six months of his sentence in prison. Winn carefully studied the law paying close attention to cases involving juvenile offenders. Then a case before the United States Supreme Court caught his attention.
“I started studying law when I was in the parish (Caddo Correctional Center). So when it comes to Angola, I was constantly in the law library, so anything dealing with kids was coming to me because I was in the law library all the time,” he said. “So when Miller came up, I was telling a guy named Fred, another juvenile from Shreveport, that the Supreme Court would rule favorably.”
In the 2012 case of Miller v Alabama, the justices ruled that adult mandatory minimum sentences in juvenile cases removed a judge’s discretion. They said it did not consider juveniles’ culpability or capacity for change. Four years later, the Supreme Court decided on Montgomery v Louisiana, applying the ruling of Miller retroactively to juvenile cases, including Winn’s.
It took another four years for Winn to walk out of Angola as a free man after serving 30 years and seven months in prison. Since his release, Winn has worked with youth and other formerly incarcerated people through his organization, PIPE.
PIPE’s purpose is to change the mindset that often leads to youth criminal offenses. They focus on teaching principles, intention, and purpose instead of thoughtlessly reacting or overreacting to situations that could lead to criminal charges.
OKQ, or Outstanding Kings and Queens, is an extension of PIPE. It provides formerly incarcerated people with a support system to set them up for success after their release and prevent recidivism.
“We’re doing this without any racial discrimination. It isn’t a black or white thing. It’s a humanity thing where we love one another. We don’t care how you look, what race you come from, or your criminal background. It’s about us loving and supporting one another,” Winn said.
He says those who have not served prison time need support systems because they often find it hard to transition into the free world.
“When you’re in prison, you have to steel yourself, so it makes you hide behind all types of falsehoods. But when you come back into society, people don’t want that. People want you to be you.”
When he speaks of Angola, or “the plantation,” he describes it as a place where legal slavery exists. The thirteenth amendment of the constitution abolished slavery except for those convicted of a crime.
While Winn’s passion for advocacy started behind prison walls, he says he was not a model prisoner. He was hardened and defiant while serving his sentence and was disciplined frequently for not complying. Winn says he felt wronged during sentencing, and it took a long time to stop being angry at the system.
In his last few years as an Angola inmate, he worked as a nurse’s aide caring for critically ill inmates. That’s where he says he learned compassion and empathy.
“Those situations take the hardness out of you, and it gives you a heart. That’s when you can see the progression of compassion and you can understand empathy. I prided myself in being a good human up until then, but I became a better human because I completely placed myself to the side for those guys. And I gave, I gave freely, and I wanted to see them better.”
Winn says 13 of the inmates he cared for died due to COVID-19 within weeks of one another. He says COVID hit Angola hard because of living conditions in prison.
Since his release on July 1, 2020, Winn has been the subject of news stories and documentary films. One project was submitted to the United Nations by The Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization with which Winn works closely. That submission led to his invitation to present in Geneva.
Winn, PIPE’s Executive Director, and the organization’s president, Dr. Creighlynn Thoele, work tirelessly to change the stigma and discriminatory practices in the criminal justice system. He says the journey from Cooper Rd. in Shreveport, La. to the United Nations is more than he ever imagined.
“No one who has walked the stuff I’ve walked has ever dreamed of speaking at the UN. We dream big, but this is beyond a dream. I wish my vocabulary was extensive enough to even say what it is,” Winn said. “No, I never in my wildest dreams thought of standing before the United Nations. I don’t believe it most days.”
A man sentenced to live out his days in prison before he turned 18 now works as a lifeline for others. Winn says he feels like Nelson Mandela, who spent decades in jail and later worked to broker the end of Apartheid in South Africa after his release.
In that spirit, Winn, a man who was rightfully convicted for his crime but harshly sentenced, will share his story with the world as an unlikely agent of change.
Anyone who wants to get involved with or support PIPE should contact Terrance Winn at 318-901-7288 or Dr. Thoele at 580-919-0738.