Fate Winslow, sentenced to life in prison for selling $20 of pot, is now a free man. This is the story behind his journey to freedom.

·9 min read
Fate Vincent Winslow was released from prison last week after serving 12 years of a life sentence for marijuana. This is the story of his release. (Photo: Innocence Project New Orleans)
Fate Vincent Winslow was released from prison last week after serving 12 years of a life sentence for marijuana. This is the story of his release. (Photo: Innocence Project New Orleans)

The first email I received from Fate Winslow came on April 3, 2018, three years and two months after I wrote a feature about him for the Daily Beast. By then, Fate was a decade into a life sentence in Louisiana for selling pot to an undercover cop, and his patience was, understandably, wearing thin.

“I am not doing OK,” Fate, now 53, wrote to me on JPay, a corrections-based email service. “There are a lot of people celebrating legal marijuana and I am stuck in prison.” Since Sept. 5, 2008, the night he was arrested, 10 states plus the District of Columbia had legalized marijuana for recreational use, and 25 states had legalized it for medical use. On the outside, marijuana was a burgeoning billion-dollar business — eliciting Costco-size dispensaries in Denver, Starbucks-like bud shops in Seattle, even a delivery startup dubbed the “Uber of pot.” But inside the walls of the Louisiana State Penitentiary, Fate was paying with his life.

If I’m honest, I was surprised to get an email from him. In 2015, when I’d done a deep dive on his story for the Daily Beast — prompted by an American Civil Liberties Union report on nonviolent offenders serving life sentences — I had tried, and failed, to reach him several times. I’d sent letters, interviewed his defense attorney, even called the warden of his prison. All to no avail.

Getting to speak with Fate about the absurdity of his sentence seemed out of reach — mostly because of where he was being held. Fate wasn’t sentenced to life just anywhere, but at the largest maximum security prison in the nation. Built on a former slave plantation and known as the “Alcatraz of the South,” the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola houses more than 5,000 individuals on a plot of land equal to the size of Manhattan where slaves once picked cotton. As of 2015, 80 percent of the inmates were Black, and 95 percent were serving life with hard labor, without the possibility of parole.

Hard labor is just what it sounds like — grueling work for almost zero pay. For many at Angola, that means long hours in the burning sun harvesting produce from the prison’s 18,000-acre farm (while mostly white prison guards supervise on horseback). For Fate, according to a May interview with Reason’s Tana Ganeva, it meant cleaning dormitories for 2 cents an hour. In other words, allowing reporters to speak with inmates isn’t exactly high on the priority list.

Until April 2018, I thought the notoriously harsh prison officials would make it impossible to connect. But days before we began emailing, I heard from his daughter Faith Canada Winslow via Facebook. A high school student in Louisiana, she’d found my story about her father during computer class. She, like others I interviewed, spoke very highly of her dad, saying she missed him and that he deserved a second chance.

I decided, at the suggestion of a friend, to try sending him an email on the correctional email service JPay. My note was brief. I told him I had spoken with his daughter, had written a long story on him years ago and then asked whether he had any appeals coming up. In his email back, Fate expressed gratitude for the piece and justified anger about his reality. “I do not have an appeal coming up,” he wrote. “I have done everything I can to get an attorney. All I need is one that knows a little about the law. I am not attacking my conviction, but I am attacking my sentence.”

Who could blame him? There was nothing fair about his sentence — he knew it, I knew it, and it seemed like there was nothing anyone could do about it. He was sent to prison for life due to Louisiana’s habitual offender law, after getting arrested with $5 in his pocket from a $20 sale of marijuana to an undercover cop. The rest of the bills, all marked, went to the white man actually dealing the drugs, who was inexplicably never arrested.

The details of the case are sobering. Fate was homeless at the time of his arrest, and due to prior felonies — two simple burglary charges and one possession of cocaine — was banned from applying for food stamps. He told the cops who arrested him that he was planning to use the money for food. At trial, his defense attorney mounted little, if any, defense, telling me in a 2015 interview that he “couldn’t be sympathetic” toward Fate because he’d been selling marijuana.

The prosecutor, Jason Brown, fought for the toughest sentence possible. When I asked him why in 2015, he told me it was a part of a strategy he called “proactive law enforcement,” in which he used smaller crimes to severely punish individuals he believed to be “dangerous career criminals.” Brown was fired as county prosecutor this year, and his own racial prejudice questioned in a March article for the Appeal by Jon Campbell, who revealed that Brown had “segregation-era ‘colored’ and ‘whites only’ signs” hanging in a property he owned.

All of which is to say that, in many ways, Fate was set up to fail. And he knew it.

From that point on, we kept in touch sporadically, mostly talking about the justice system and whether he had any path to freedom. In January 2019, I asked him if any lawyers had contacted him about the case (by then it had been covered by more outlets, including the New York Times, Rolling Stone and Mother Jones) or if that would even help. “I have all the paperwork anyone [would] need to go through if they need to see that,” he wrote. “To answer your question. YES!!!! YES!!!! A lawyer would help me tremendously.”

He ended that email as he often ended them, wishing me well. “I’m praying the New Year will be good to you and your family. And I pray that God place his blessings on you and your whole family,” he wrote to me in January 2019. “Thank you...Fate Vincent Winslow.”

In February 2020, he mentioned that he may have another appeal because the Louisiana Supreme Court had struck down the state’s non-unanimous verdict law, which allowed a jury to convict someone with a split of 10-2. His own jury fell into the same pattern, with 10 white jurors voting guilty and two jurors, both Black, voting not guilty. But the law would need to be applied retroactively, which it has yet to be. “As of now just waiting and doing a lot of praying,” he wrote. “I’m definitely praying Prison Reform will help.”

When not focusing on the legal questions about his case, Fate would discuss his commitment to God and his faith. “I’m thanking the Heavenly Father for his continuous blessing of meeting some remarkable individuals,” Fate wrote that month. “I’m appreciating the hearts that I have found that is leading me in this direction.”

In March, when the COVID-19 pandemic began to spread in the U.S., I reached out to ask how things were going. Fate said he’d gotten a “bug” that made him feel like he was dying — one that, now in retrospect, seems pretty likely to have been COVID-19. “When I tell you it takes everything from you. I wouldn’t wish this is up on any body,” Fate wrote. “We are housed in a [barn]. All the windows are closed, the vents aren’t working, so the bug just go from one person to the next.”

Then, a few weeks later, he reached out with good news. An attorney named “Mrs. [Jee] Park” had come to visit him and, he added, “is trying to get me credit for time served.” Fate said she was from the Innocence Project in New Orleans (IPNO) and that she had found the original story I’d written about his case in 2015. “She is doing everything she can to get me out,” he wrote.

In September, he said that Angola had begun to somewhat reopen after shutting down completely due to COVID-19. “Dear Mrs. Abigail just wanted you to no [sic] we came [out] of quarantine today thank god no one has gotten sick in a week,” he wrote, adding, “May god bless you.” Then, on Halloween, he sent word that IPNO had prevailed and that he would likely be receiving a new sentence soon. Alongside his message he attached clip art of a puppy with the words, “Anything is possible with the right friend.”

The emails grew more frequent after that, as Fate faced the beginning of the end. In November he said he was praying for “that day,” meaning his resentencing hearing. By early December, he said he was “still waiting on good news,” and warned me about COVID-19: “Be careful out there that virus is not playing.” Then, finally, on Dec. 9, the email he’d been waiting more than a decade to send: “Wanted to share some good news with you I go to court on tuesday 12-15-2020 he [will] say 12 years credit for time served,” Fate wrote. “God is good.”

Fate emailed me on Dec. 15, shortly after the sentencing hearing in which a judge declared he should get released the next day. Since the Louisiana State Penitentiary is not letting inmates travel to court due to COVID-19, Fate appeared via video-chat. Park, whom I spoke to after, said he was smiling the whole time. “I get my freedom back, I get my life back,” Fate wrote to me right after. “Today, redemption has come.”

On Tuesday, six days after his release, Fate called me on his new cellphone. His daughter had given me his number, but it was surreal to see his name appear on my screen. “I’m still figuring this thing out,” he said, laughing. “My niece told me I’m missing a lot of messages.” We talked briefly about his excitement over getting a driver’s license, his long-anticipated meeting with his grandkids and the local news interview he did that morning from his front yard. Mostly, though, we took a moment to acknowledge the reality of what this conversation — the first unmonitored one we’d ever had — meant. “I never thought we’d be talking on a cellphone,” I said. He agreed, then added with audible joy: “A cellphone of someone who is free.”

To read more about Fate’s story and how the Innocence Project New Orleans successfully advocated for his release, visit Yahoo News.

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