A Louisiana man sentenced to life in prison for less than $30 of marijuana has now been released from prison after nearly a decade of serving his time.
According to KTLA5, Derek Harris‘ life sentence was recently reduced to time served, amounting to nine years. He was released from the Louisiana State Penitentiary, according to a Tuesday press release from the Promise of Justice Initiative, which is a New Orleans-based nonprofit organization.
Harris’ freedom comes at a time when prisons across the country face elevated risks from the coronavirus.
“This delayed justice was a terrifying ordeal for Derek and his family,” Mercedes Montagnes, the nonprofit’s executive director explained. “As COVID-19 rates continue to rise in DOC facilities, every day spent in Angola was a tremendous risk for Derek’s health and safety.”
The Louisiana State Penitentiary has notoriously received the nickname of “Angola,” considering the land on which it’s located used to be the Angola slave plantation. The plantation was given the name “Angola” after the country in which its former slaves originated, according to a Columbia University report.
Harris’ attorney, Cormac Boyle, said Harris’ prison release is just the first step in helping him move forward.
“Supporting Derek did not end with overturning his egregious life sentence and it did not end the day he walked out of Angola,” Boyle said in a statement.
According to the press release, Harris used to work in the prison’s hospital for years, but now he’s unemployed as a free man. He’s also in need of “basic help for medications and other necessities to get him started in his new life,” according to the release.
“Righting the harms done to a person through incarceration includes supporting their health, housing, and adjustment to their long-deserved freedom we need all the help we can get,” Boyle said.
Harris, a military veteran, was arrested back in 2008 in Abbeville, Louisiana after selling .69 grams of marijuana to an officer. At first, he was convicted and sentenced to 15 years in prison, according to the state’s Supreme Court.
However, in 2012, he was re-sentenced to life in prison under the Habitual Offender Law, which allows judges to give updated sentences to those who have previous convictions on their record. Activists have slammed the law as a major component behind mass incarceration and said it’s often created unfair and harsh sentences for nonviolent crimes.
“Louisiana’s habitual offender law is abused, misused and ineffective,” Jamila Johnson, a senior supervising attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center Action Fund, explained in a 2019 statement on the law.
“People suffering from addiction, mental illness, and poverty can find themselves in prison for decades for something as minor as stealing $14.”