VOTE’s founder Norris Henderson spent 27 years, 10 months and 18 days imprisoned.
While incarcerated in the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, Kenneth “Biggy” Johnston enlisted Norris Henderson to join him as a jailhouse lawyer. Together they started teaching law classes to others on the yard. After getting out of solitary confinement Biggy and Norris took their organizing even further.
Norris shares, “all the things they measure were ripe at Angola. I mean hopelessness was there. Nobody was going home, people with long sentences. You name it. It was evident in Angola. So at this time, we, me and some other guys, started thinking about what we can do to change not necessarily our conditions, but our circumstances.”
And they did just that, founding the Angola Special Civics Project (ASCP) in 1987. As a group, they began strategizing, organizing and fighting for freedom and structural change. They designated roles and committees to various leaders, including Checo Yancy, current Policy Director for Voters Organized to Educate.
In the 1990 Louisiana legislative session, 20/45, the Lifers Club and now ASCP’s first bill, finally passed and became Act 790. While this was a major victory for many, the work was incomplete because the final law did not apply to those doing life without the possibility of parole. With the new laws that they helped to pass now in effect, thousands of incarcerated people had the opportunity to reopen their cases. ASCP helped by filing more than 5,000 post-conviction applications in the course of a year.
Norris Henderson was freed on March 23, 2003 and he founded VOTE almost exactly a year later. “I always swore that if I got out, I would not forget the people I left behind.” And two decades later, he never did.