Awaking from a 35 Year Nightmare

By Patrick Govan

Imagine having a nightmare that felt like it would never end, but upon awakening, you realized it only lasted with the passing of the night. Nevertheless, in that moment it felt like a lifetime had gone by. I awakened from my nightmare on February 28, 2023. That nightmare, however, was not just a moment in the night, it had taken 35 years out of my life.

On February 28, 2023, I was released from the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola after serving 35 years of a life sentence for a conviction that Orleans Parish prosecutors finally realized was unjust and extreme. Here I would like to share a little about what my life was like before and during prison, and what life and freedom means to me now.

It was only three days after celebrating my 25th year of life that I was arrested. It may surprise the average person that this was my first and only criminal offense. I had no juvenile record. I had been raised in a Christian household with both parents present my entire childhood. I shared that home with two siblings, an older brother and a younger sister. I was a high school graduate, and had served three years on active duty in the United States Navy as a Hospital Corpsman and Field Medical Service Technician. I was certified in CPR and emergency care. It was at the end of my active reserve obligation and while enrolled as a freshman at Xavier University that I was arrested and charged for the crime of murder. The crime involved the unintentional death of an adult family member. However, the criminal justice system in Orleans Parish did not look at the facts on an individual basis.

My nightmare was born inside the political push of mass incarceration, the slow genocide of a group of people, particularly those who are black and brown. It was an election year in 1988, and their way of administering justice was simply to overcharge for a crime and hope their version would persuade the ill-informed jury to believe them.

The major reason that prison was a nightmare for me is because it held me powerless. It took away my freedom, my liberty. It made me a modern-day slave. It separated me from everyone and everything I had ever loved in life. Over the years, I couldn’t even pay my last respects to family members I lost. 

I could no longer have any privacy while showering or having to relieve myself. There was no door to close behind me. At night, I had to share a single room with up to 80 people– every day of my incarceration. Healthcare was always at a very minimum, if at all. 

Although I am awake now, I am still tormented by the fact that my nightmare continues in the suffering of my friends at Angola. Many of them were already there when my nightmare began. Some came along at a later time while others woke up before and after me. A lot of them are still trapped inside, where they will simply die in the nightmare, never to awaken. I think that fact alone is what keeps me up late into the night. Their nightmare has become my struggle, my pain, my suffering, my feelings of hopelessness. 

Under the case review project of the Orleans Parish District Attorney Civil Rights Division, initiated by District Attorney Jason Williams in 2021, there has been a total of 297 case interventions. Two-hundred and sixty people have been released from incarceration, including 150 individuals once sentenced to life without parole. I am blessed to have been in that number! In addition, 100 habitual offender cases were resolved. Because D.A. Jason Williams had the courage to address an unjust racist system, approximately 2,556 years of incarceration have been avoided, saving the State $173 million dollars. [1] 

The Orleans Parish Civil Rights Division’s unprecedented challenge to confront past harm and injustice in convictions and sentences is worthy of imitation. It is my hope that their blueprint will be duplicated throughout the State of Louisiana and the rest of the country. There are countless others who deserve a measure of justice in being freed from the inhumane nightmare of prison life. 

In May of 2023 I was blessed to have been welcomed into the Loyola University community as a Research Coordinator for the Jesuit Social Research Institute (JSRI). A member of JSRI, Bidish Sarma, is the lead Assistant District Attorney in the Civil Rights Division of the Orleans Parish District Attorney Office and was instrumental in my release from incarceration. There are so many others who worked unselfishly and relentlessly for me and others. I am and will always be grateful for their love and undeserved kindness. I am now working with my JSRI colleagues to conduct research, education, advocacy and service to end mass incarceration for all those who are still trapped inside the nightmare. 

[1] Data from the website of the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office at https://orleansda.com/divisions/civil-rights/

Patrick Govan is the Research Coordinator for the Jesuit Social Research Institute. 

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