Today’s New York Times features an amazing story about an inspirational man.
Calvin Duncan served 23 years in the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, the nation’s largest maximum security prison. During his years at Angola, Calvin worked as a “jailhouse lawyer,” paid 20 cents an hour, to help fellow inmates with their cases. Though he had just a 10th-grade education at the time, his years of legal practice gave him expertise in criminal law that often surpassed that of seasoned attorneys – and they often sought his advice, the New York Times noted.
While serving his own sentence, Calvin helped to free several prisoners, including acclaimed journalist Wilbert Rideau.
Calvin and Avodah: A New Partnership for Justice in Louisiana
Calvin was finally released in 2011 through the help of Avodah partner, The Innocence Project of New Orleans (IPNO). In 2008, IPNO sent Avodah Corps Member Ora Nitkin-Kaner (now a rabbi at Ann Arbor Reconstructionist Congregation), to Angola to meet with Calvin, who was working to prove his innocence. Calvin credits his relationship with Ora as a crucial part of achieving his freedom, and Ora’s relationship with Calvin propelled her into the rabbinate.
Upon his release in 2011, Calvin and five fellow formerly incarcerated men co-founded The First 72+, a re-entry program for individuals coming out of the prison system, which now serves as an Avodah placement organization. Calvin currently works at another Avodah placement organization, The Promise of Justice Initiative, where he continues the work of his 2013 Soros Fellowship, “reducing the procedural barriers prisoners face in securing justice for their cases.” For more on the impact Calvin has had on Avodah and the City of New Orleans, and the impact Avodah had on Calvin, click on the video below.
For decades, Calvin has worked to challenge a Louisiana law that permitted criminal convictions by non-unanimous juries. The law was passed in 1898 for the express purpose of enshrining white supremacy by making sure the votes of Black jurors wouldn’t count. “It’s like the last of the Jim Crow-era laws,” Calvin told the Times.
As a member of the Interfaith Coalition for Justice, Avodah worked with 22 partners to wipe out this long-standing racist law. In November of 2018, thanks to the hard work of Calvin and many other Avodah placement organizations, Corps Members, alumni, Advisory Council members and others, Louisiana voters finally eliminated the statute. Oregon is the only other state that still allows non-unanimous verdicts in criminal cases. Though unanimous juries will be required moving forward in Louisiana, Calvin is continuing to make a case for retroactive ameliorative relief for those currently serving time due to non-unanimous jury convictions.
The Supreme Court Prepares to Weigh in
Now, Calvin’s work is at the heart of an upcoming United States Supreme Court case that could save hundreds from life in prison. After more than two dozen failed attempts to reach the nation’s highest court, the justices will finally grapple with the constitutionality of the law on October 7th, the first day of the Court’s new term.
At Avodah, we are grateful to have a long-running relationship with Calvin. He has had a profound impact on our community.