Louisiana Man Looks to Shed Light on System That Punished Him With 23 Years in Prison for Stealing 2 Shirts
Guy Frank, 67, became a free man on April 8, after serving 21 years of a 23-year sentence. The Innocence Project New Orleans (IPNO) worked to get Frank out of prison two years early.
A Louisiana man stole two shirts from Saks Fifth Avenue. He would go on to spend more than 20 years behind bars for the crime. Last month, Guy Frank, now 67, walked out of the Franklin Parish Detention Center a free man.
The punishment for the petty crime seems unheard of, but in 2000, when Frank was arrested, the state was under Louisiana’s Habitual Offender Statute that mandates major sentences for minor crimes. The law was enacted with the premise in mind that individuals with multiple convictions cannot be rehabilitated, so it is best to incarcerate them for the maximum amount of time possible to make communities safer.
Although Frank had never been convicted of a violent crime, he did have previous convictions, including one for possession of cocaine. When Frank was arrested in 2000 for stealing the two shirts, he was sentenced to two years, which was the maximum under the statutes for that charge, to which he pleaded guilty, but since he had three felony-grade thefts on his record, the State of Louisiana decided to enhance his sentence to 23 years.
Reforms to the Law Create the Possibility for Freedom
In 2017, there had been significant reforms to the law as part of the initiative Justice Reinvestment (JRI) that a number of states have taken on with the help of the Pew Charitable Trusts. The plan was two-fold: to help mitigate the prison population with the goal of saving the state millions of dollars and to then take some of that money and reinvest it in other initiatives, like victim services and community-based alternatives instead of incarceration, according to Louisianans for Prison Alternatives.
In Frank’s case, this revision under Louisiana’s Habitual Offender Statute did not apply to him since he had already been sentenced.
It was in March, while Frank was still behind bars, having served nearly 21 of his 23-year sentence, that the Innocence Project New Orleans, (IPNO), a non-profit organization that works to free innocent life-sentenced people from prison and advocates for sensible criminal justice policies that reduce wrongful convictions, found out about his case.
Meredith Angelson, an attorney for IPNO, told Inside Edition Digital that she found Frank’s name on a spreadsheet that had 12,000 entries while looking through a Department of Corrections document of Louisiana’s urban parishes of people serving 20 years or more in prison for any crime.
“Each entry was a charge, not a person—some people may have had more than one entry because they are serving time for more than one conviction,” she explained.
She called the circumstances surrounding Frank's imprisonment “shocking.”
“Even the police report said that Frank barely made it out of the store with the shirts, so there was no restitution and the amount [the shirts cost], which was less than $500, is now a misdemeanor, but when Frank was convicted it was a felony,” she said.
Angelson knew she had to move as quickly as she could to get him to court.
“The idea of him having to serve one more second of his sentence was horrific,” she said. “The prosecutor agreed that his situation was egregious and we both filed motions asking that he be resentenced. The judge agreed to do so.”
How the System Was Set Up to Fail Guy Frank
Angelson said what stood out to her about the case was that there was no actual loss to the store and Frank had never been convicted of anything more than stealing in a small amount. She also said that what stood out as significant to her was that he also pleaded guilty to the crime and the prosecutor still chose to file a sentence enhancement, which exposed him to more than 20 years in prison. Furthermore, the judge sentenced him to more than the minimum, she said.
“Additionally if you read the transcripts in the case, you can see how poorly he was treated, even by his own lawyer, who told him to 'shut up.' And when there was a chance to offer mitigating circumstance about his life or make arguments about why his sentence was too long, the lawyer did nothing,” she said. “So between the prosecutor, the judge and the defense attorney, Mr. Frank was being pummeled from all sides.”
In 2007, there was a possibility for Frank to have an early release. The judge in that instance imposed a much lower sentence that would have allowed his immediate release, Angelson explained, but the district attorney that was in office at the time appealed the judge’s new sentence and the appellate court re-imposed the 23-year sentence.
Over the past two decades, Frank spent time in a number of different prisons and jail facilities, including the Dixon Correctional Institute, Catahoula Correctional Center, Franklin Parish Detention Center and the Louisiana State Penitentiary. He was housed with people serving for all different types of crimes, as well as those who were not yet convicted but awaiting trial.
Getting 2 Years Back Meant the World to Guy Frank, Who Had Lost So Much
Speaking from his sister’s home in New Orleans, Frank told Inside Edition Digital the feeling he had when he walked out of those prison doors on April 8 a free man.
“I looked up in heaven and said 'God is good,'” he said. “I never thought I would walk out of the prison door in 2021, I thought I was walking out the door in 2023.”
During those dark times when Frank was imprisoned, he said he prayed a lot and tried to remain hopeful. "I wanted to let it come out but I told myself I have to stay strong,” he shared. “I said one day, I will come home.”
Frank told Inside Edition Digital that he was never angry when he was behind bars, “It didn’t take a toll on me like that," he said. What did take a toll, he said, was all the time he had lost with his loved ones. Frank, who is one of nine siblings, said he was in prison when his mother and two brothers died.
“All my family is dying on me. I’ll have no one to come home to when I get out,” Frank said of his thoughts at the time.
Then he heard the news that his father had passed. “I was going to come home and take care of him," Frank said, getting choked up. “When my mama died, it really took a toll on me. I told myself I hope I didn’t bring that pressure on her. She always said, ‘I hope one day you make it out there before I close my eyes.' But I couldn’t make it out there and that was a hard pill for me to swallow.’”
“I was close, real close to my mama. I was real close," he said.
The day he learned that his request for early dismissal has been granted was a moment he'll never forget. “The attorney asked over a Zoom meeting, ‘How would you feel if you could leave the prison system in 2021? I told her, “Yeah, that would be a blessing.’”
Frank shared with his fellow inmates the news that he’d been hoping and praying for.
“When I went back to the dorm and told the brothers I was going home. They all said, “‘We are glad for you,’” he said, “and then they hugged me.”
And then April 8 arrived.
“To be out of prison, walk outside those doors and go in the car to see my brother and my sister was one of the most beautiful blessings God gave me that was sent from heaven," he said.
Then he paused.
“These good people got me out of prison,” Frank said. “I just hope the other brothers can get out just like me. It hurts my heart what they were doing to me and to see him do it to other people. You took 20 years of my life. Twenty years is a long time to come and try to make up for that. I can’t do that. My life has to start all over again,” he said. “Just want people to know that everything that goes on in that courtroom it ain’t right.”
He continued, “You know I have no discrimination. If I have done bad and I know I did this give me the time with the charge, but don’t go overboard with it. They’ve been doing this for too long. Everything has got to change in that courtroom.”
Frank's voice got higher as he expressed his feelings of pain. “You took a human being's life for 20 years,” he said. “ I come home the world changed. I have to get adjusted to society. It is going to be hard for me, but it is going to be a new life for me.”
Guy Frank's Circumstances Are Not Entirely Unique, Advocates Say
Angelson, who said she was relived that Frank was no longer in prison, also said ‘the outcome doesn’t feel like justice.”
“It is sickening that he served two decades in prison for trying to take two shirts from Saks Fifth Avenue,” she said.” Our criminal system treats people who have been accused of crimes like they are a problem rather than a person, especially if they are Black. Despite whatever progress we have claimed to make in the legislatures, prison is still seen as the answer to punishment and preventing criminal behavior, even after it has failed to do that for generations. Louisiana’s system of punishment has always been about making sure that Black people are more easily convicted of crimes and that they face long sentences. It is a direct outgrowth of slavery.”
She continued, “In the vast majority of cases, people convicted of crimes are also left to fight their own legal battles from prison. They are generally ignored by the courts even when they have valid claims because it is assumed, since they are not lawyers and presumed to be guilty, that they do not know what’s right or wrong. But a person knows when they have been treated like less than a person—when they are imprisoned because no one recognized or cared about their humanity. Mr. Frank’s incarceration is a terrible example of this phenomenon.”
Angelson and the IPNO team are still gathering comprehensive data on the number of people serving long sentence for non-violent offenses. So far, she has not found another person serving more than 20 years for theft of items valued at $500 and for nothing else.
Since its inception in 2001, the Innocence Project New Orleans' work has led to the release or exoneration of 36 individuals, who spent a combined 873 years in prison.
And, in the summer of 2020, IPNO launched the Unjust Punishment Project (UPP to work to see people in Louisiana serving life or equivalent sentences for nonviolent crimes be freed.
The Louisianans for Prison Alternatives calls the Habitual Offender Statute “outdated with harmful sentencing practices that don’t improve public safety. Prevention and rehabilitation is what is needed to address the root causes of repeat offenses, such as mental illness, substance abuse, and poverty, said the organization."
Currently, 64% of people serving time in Louisiana prisons under the Habitual Offender Statute are there for nonviolent crimes. Thirty-one percent of people convicted as habitual offenders are incarcerated for drug offenses with a disproportionate impact, 79% on African American Louisianans, according to the Louisianans for Prison Alternatives.
Louisiana’s Habitual Offender Statute has resulted in more people going to prison and for longer periods of time, Louisianans for Prison Alternatives said. And, nearly 5,000 people are currently serving sentences enhanced by Louisiana’s habitual offender statute – one of every 7 people in Louisiana prisons.
The average sentence term is 34.5 years, compared to an average of 16.5 years for the total prison population, according to the organization’s site.
What's Next for Guy Frank
Frank, who calls himself a "man of God," said he wants to help others.
“God used to tell me, 'You make the first and I will make the second step.' I took the first step and got out of prison,” he said.
Since his April release, he has been living with his sister in New Orleans and trying to make up for lost time: catching up with friends, family, his nieces and nephews.
All the reunions have been emotional, particularly the one he had with his little brother, which took place on the porch of his sister's house.
“When my little brother came he hugged me and he cried. I said to him, ‘I’m home, bro. Brian, I am home. He cried for like a whole hour on my shoulder. My sister said, ‘Let it come out. It ain’t a dream,' she said. 'It’s real.'”
Frank has also been enjoying all the home-cooked meals he’s missed. His first meal eaten at his sister's house was one comprised of simple pleasures.
“I ate five scrambled eggs, three Jimmy dean sausage, four pieces of toast. I drank two glass of Sunny Delight orange juice, drank four cups of coffee. I smoked two Winston cigarettes," he said. "After I ate my breakfast. I let it digest. I went to sit out on the porch. And, I had that blessed feeling.”
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