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For Henry Montgomery, a Catch-22

His “meaningful opportunity for release” came with impossible conditions.

In 1963, when Henry Montgomery was 17 years old, he killed a sheriff’s deputy in East Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Montgomery was sentenced to life without parole for his crime. Now 71 years old, he has been incarcerated for 54 years. Montgomery is also the named plaintiff in a 2016 landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling that applied retroactively the Court’s 2012 precedent banning mandatory life without parole sentences for youth who committed their offense under the age of 18. The decision was the third in a series that required states to give Montgomery and 2,000 other people serving life without parole a “meaningful opportunity for release.”

Despite being newly eligible for parole because of his resentencing, last week the Louisiana Board of Parole turned down Montgomery’s application for release. As justification, members of the board cited Montgomery’s short list of official classes completed during his time in prison. It didn’t acknowledge, however, that he was excluded from such programming for the first 30 years of his sentence because of his life sentence.

Henry Montgomery, flanked by two deputies, awaits the verdict in his 1964 trial for the murder of Deputy Sheriff Charles H. Hurt in Louisiana.

Henry Montgomery, flanked by two deputies, awaits the verdict in his 1964 trial for the murder of Deputy Sheriff Charles H. Hurt in Louisiana.

Montgomery’s case offers a window into the experience of life imprisonment nationally, one that is particularly distorted for those sentenced to prison as teenagers. Some correctional policies limit participation in programming to those with an upcoming release date, which places those serving life at an extreme disadvantage. Even if eligible, programs frequently have long wait lists and those with life terms are at the back of the line. As in Montgomery’s situation, if a prisoner is restricted from accessing programming he or she has a difficult time making an argument for rehabilitation before a parole board.

Though painted as such by the state, Montgomery was hardly a do-nothing. For 20 years, he worked full time in the prison’s silk-screen shop, where he was named “Employee of the Month” eight times. He also founded Angola’s Amateur Boxing Association and engaged in religious groups within the prison. For a period, Alcoholics Anonymous was the only available self-help group in the prison and, even though Montgomery had no history of alcoholism, he participated in the group meetings because they were all that was offered.

In the past, people with life terms were able to work toward meaningful correctional privileges, and while lifers never had an opportunity for broad exposure to programming, fiscal constraints and regressive crime policies have restricted these options even more.

In 2012, I conducted a national study of individuals sentenced to life imprisonment for crimes committed as juveniles; it revealed that many lifers were denied access to rehabilitative programming. For example, half of the Michigan prisoners serving juvenile life without parole sentences reported that they did not participate in programming because their sentence precluded it, and another quarter had already exhausted program offerings. Similar trends existed in Pennsylvania and Florida.

Given Montgomery’s precedent-setting advocacy at the Supreme Court, his parole outcome is troubling and may set a less welcome precedent for many others seeking relief. Recent data show that while there were fewer prisoners serving a sentence of juvenile life without parole in 2016 than in 2012, the vast majority of those who are supposed to benefit from these landmark rulings are still waiting.

If Henry Montgomery’s situation is any indication of how the Court’s ruling will continue to play out across the country, it’s a sad commentary on the meaning of justice today.

Ashley Nellis is a senior research analyst at The Sentencing Project and the author of a series of national reports on life sentences.