Norris Henderson: A Profile of Commitment to Criminal Justice Reform
by Gary Hunter
In 1977, Norris Henderson arrived at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, more commonly known, then and now, as just Angola. With the weight of a life sentence on his shoulders, he had to confront the prison’s legendary legacy of violence.
In 1930 it was estimated that one in every ten prisoners at Angola had been stabbed. In 1952, 31 prisoners known as the Heel String Gang severed their own Achilles’ tendons to protest deplorable conditions at the facility. The last member of the group died in 2010, still locked away in Angola. Two prisoners were shot in 1999, one fatally, during a failed escape attempt in which a guard was killed.
But amid this violent history, during Norris Henderson’s 27-year tenure at Angola other historic events were taking place – with Norris squarely at the center.
In 1987, violence was erupting in prisons across the country, including riots at federal facilities in Atlanta, Georgia and Oakdale, Louisiana. Guards were on edge as rebellious prisoners at Angola conspired to show the world once again how the facility got its violent reputation. Norris had a different idea. Using his position as a clerk in the law library, he persuaded some of the more educated, open-minded prisoners to try a progressive, political problem-solving approach.
“The idea was to initiate legislation that would provide some relief and hope of parole for men with life sentences,” Norris told PLN during a September 2014 interview.
Angola has the highest number of lifers in the United States; as of June 30, 2014, 84.3% of the approximately 6,300 prisoners at Angola were serving life sentences.
Norris’ idea caught on. Weeks turned into months as the legal team pushed its paperwork past state politicians. Their idea gained traction as lawmakers saw its potential, and relief seemed closer than ever. Then, in an ironic twist, the legislature passed a bill that granted relief to every prisoner except those with life sentences.
Norris was disappointed, but a victory is a victory and in the eyes of his peers Norris’ team had won. And so in 1987, the Angola Special Civics Project was founded.
Norris was just getting started, however. For the next 16 years he used his legal acumen to help his fellow prisoners secure their rights. Respect for his intellect and integrity grew among both prisoners and prison staff.
In the mid-1990s, Henderson led a month-long boycott of the prison’s phone service provider, Global Tel*Link. The protest sparked an investigation by Kathleen Blanco, chairperson of the Louisiana Public Service Commission at the time. She forced Global Tel to refund over $1 million the company had gouged from the pockets of prisoners’ families.
One prisoner, released with Henderson’s help, returned the favor by contacting attorney Laurie White, who ended up working with Norris until his release in 2003. When he finally walked out of prison, he had already laid the groundwork for his life’s mission. He knew exactly what he had to do.
Norris told PLN, “Most people who’ve been incarcerated didn’t know what their voting rights are. Some thought it was 10 years after they got out, some thought you had to have a pardon, others thought they had lost the right to vote completely. Most candidates don’t even see prisoners and their families as a constituency.”
And so, just as he did while incarcerated, Norris began educating ex-prisoners on how to secure their legal rights through the political process. One year to the date of his release, Voice of the Ex-Offender (VOTE), an advocacy organization with Norris as executive director, was born.
VOTE rallied families around Kathleen Blanco’s 2004 gubernatorial campaign, and she won the election handily. The organization has managed to fight jail overcrowding by having caps placed on prison beds, and to initiate criminal justice reform to curb police brutality. And in a stroke of poetic justice, Norris was able to help the attorney who had represented him during his last years in Angola.
Behind by 3,000 votes in a primary election, Laurie White, who was running for judge, was struggling in her bid for the bench. VOTE mobilized its forces behind her campaign and she eventually won by 10,000 votes.
Norris Henderson was honored as Trailblazer of the Year in 2014 by the New Orleans Data News Weekly. He is the recipient of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Ben Smith Award, received the Society of American Law Teachers’ Human Rights Award and was honored by the City of New Orleans with Norris Henderson Day. He is a former Soros Justice Fellow.
When asked about his success, Norris invariably points to others who have influenced him. He says he was inspired by Ray Hill, an ex-con from Texas who went on to successfully establish his own prison radio talk show. [See: PLN, Nov. 2009, p.10]. Norris also credits Prison Legal News for keeping him on the cutting edge of legal trends and court decisions.
“In 1993, I was PLN’s first subscriber in Louisiana. I would use it to show guys in the law library what the courts were doing in other states. I would use PLN to help me push the envelope in our behalf,” he said.
It is impossible to fathom the amount of pressure that nearly three decades in prison puts on a person. Most men are glad just to survive. But a few actually thrive despite their carceral circumstances, and Norris is living proof.
“You erase the years by raising the rights of the incarcerated,” he stated. “Prison can be a bad experience with good results. You have to find your niche. You have to be committed.”
To learn more about Norris Henderson and VOTE, visit www.vote-nola.org.
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