ANGOLA, LA (WAFB) - With a hammer and some elbow grease, Theortric Givens can match wits with any carpenter. His latest project is a dining room table set for a couple whose home flooded last August.
"They came in wanting to buy, but they didn't really have the funds, so I turned around and told them, I said, 'Look, this is what I'm going to do, I'm going to build a dinette set,'" said Givens.
But unlike most living in the Baton Rouge area, Givens never saw those floodwaters firsthand. Incarcerated for more than 40 years, he was convicted of second degree murder in New Orleans in 1976 and is serving a life sentence. "I gone lost all my hair, look at that. I don't have any hair on the top of my head," he said.
Givens is now in his 60s and has so far spent two-thirds of his life at Angola Prison. During those decades, Givens learned a trade, rebuilding his life one project at a time. "I look at where I come from and I know I'm still not where I would like to be, but I'm satisfied with the progress. I'm happy with me," said Givens.
Sentenced to life, he was destined to live out the rest of his years behind bars, but as of just a few weeks ago, he now has a chance at freedom.
Earlier this year, in a rare moment of bipartisanship, state lawmakers approved 10 bills overhauling Louisiana's criminal justice system. As part of that historic reform, about 130 lifers convicted in the 1970s will now get a chance at parole, including Givens. When they were first sentenced, they were promised a shot at parole, but a technicality in the law prevented them from acting on it.
Now, they will get that chance.
"This is not an automatic release. This has to go through a process, and the victims and the DAs will have their say-so," said corrections secretary Jimmy LeBlanc, who was one of those pushing for reforms. He says he would not have supported parole for these inmates if he thought it would put public safety at risk.
"As much time as I spend up there with these guys, I know they are going to be fine, I know they are going to be okay. I lay my head next to any, most of those guys any time and not be concerned," said LeBlanc.
Givens spent his spring eagerly following the action at the state capitol. "You could say, 'Let's go today,' and I'm ready. I got a job and everything," said Givens.
However, a shot at life outside the fence remains a far-off dream for many inmates. While that reform may help a little more than 100 prisoners, there are still about 5,000 statewide with life sentences that have zero chance at parole.
One of them is Robert Lucas, who arrived at Angola in 1990. He's also serving a life sentence for second degree murder in East Baton Rouge Parish.
"Gun goes off, goes through the door, hits my daddy and kill him. Don't kill him right then and there, but he die. It was horrible," he said, barely finishing the last word before breaking into tears.
Under the original bills filed at the state capitol, prisoners like Lucas could have had a shot at parole after reaching 50 years of age and serving 30 years behind bars. However, lawmakers scrapped that part of the legislation after facing push back from DAs and sheriffs, who worried about the impact on victims and public safety.
"I'm an old man. What can I do to anybody? I can't hurt nobody. I won't commit no crime or do anything. I can't do nothing," Lucas said. Currently 71-years-old, he cannot walk due to a stroke and suffers from glaucoma.
He says it's a race against time. "I want to get out to be with my grand kids. I would like to get out before I go blind, when I can see them," he said.
For now, Lucas finds some hope in the story of his caretaker, Aaron Brent, who currently serves as a nurse aid in one of the hospital wards at Angola and is also an inmate. Sentenced to life for a murder in the 1970s, Brent is one of those who could qualify for parole under the new laws.
When he first got to Angola in 1976, he tried to be the big man on campus. He even managed to escape within his first two years there. "In this prison at that time, everything was about reputation," he said.
Things changed for Brent a little over a decade ago when his own son arrived at the prison on a life sentence. Wanting to set a good example, he took up the position in the hospital ward, cleaning and feeding his fellow inmates.
"They my kids. All of them my kids. I love 'em to death," said Brent, noting that there is no way he could have done the job of nurse aid when he first arrived. "Ain't no way in the world. I was young, wild, and selfish. Now like I say, when you get older, you get wiser."
If all goes as planned, he may soon get to say farewell to the men he spent the past decade treating, as well as his own son. "This prison done a lot for me, and I sorry that I had to take this prison to be able to be the person that I am now," said Brent.
A spokesman for the Department of Corrections says parole hearings for inmates like Givens and Brent could start happening as early as November 1 of this year.
Meanwhile, LeBlanc says work to overhaul the criminal justice system in Louisiana is not done. He is already starting his push to make sentencing for various crimes easier to understand and implement.
He also wants to look at other ways for more lifers to get a shot at parole.