Within a few months of his release from what had been a lifetime imprisonment, Andrew Hundley, then 34, enrolled at Louisiana State University (LSU) and founded the Louisiana Parole Project, a nonprofit focused on advocacy and reentry for former juvenile lifers. Hundley, who’d been sentenced in 1997 at the age of 15, was released after serving 19 years in the Louisiana prison system due to 2016 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Montgomery v. Louisiana. 

Hundley had the chance to start over, finish college, and start a family. But many of the men and women he works with through the Parole Project are older and entered the Louisiana prison system at a time when there were no educational opportunities, especially for lifers. 

Last week, I sat down with Hundley at a cafe in New Orleans to discuss his journey from the Louisiana State Penitentiary to Louisiana State University. We talked about prison cowboys, second chances, and the value of education behind bars.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Q. Where does your story start?

A. I’m from South Central Louisiana, a small town called Eunice. When I was 15 years old, I was arrested for second degree murder, and subsequently convicted and given a [mandatory] life without parole sentence. I went straight to an adult prison, and I was scared to death not only of my surroundings, but also at the prospect of spending the rest of my life in prison. Early on, I wanted to try to make my parents as proud of me as they could and relieve their anxiety about me being in prison. 

Within months of being there, I was able to earn my GED. This was 1999-2000, there were no college courses that were offered within the prison, but I was able to do correspondence courses, at my own expense, through Louisiana State University.  

I did a couple of those. They were really expensive, so I couldn’t afford to continue to do them. And then doing one of these correspondence courses at a time, I thought that I’m never going to graduate. I have this life sentence, so maybe this isn’t such a great idea. 

So fast forward, I continued to be involved in rehabilitative programming and prisoner-led organizations. But about 10 years into my incarceration, there was a local community college that started offering basic college courses, one or two a semester. It was a pilot program and the prison administrators selected a handful of people who were able to participate and that was through River Parishes Community College, which is part of Louisiana’s Technical and Community College System. 

Actually the first course that was offered was a course on the Old Testament, it was a religious studies course. I eventually was able to take Biology 1, Biology 2, math, English. Through that process, I ended up accumulating around 40 hours of credit.

Q. Were you able to finish your degree?

A. There was a point where I was transferred from that institution to Angola, or the Louisiana State Penitentiary, where I spent my last couple years of incarceration. I had a job at Angola that precluded me from education. Sometimes you sacrifice, just like people on the outside. You have a really good job, but it’s very time consuming. And because it gives you a good quality of life, you forgo other things. That’s the sort of choice a lot of prisoners have to make. 

Q. What was your job?

A. I worked on the range crew, so imagine prison cowboys. Angola is a huge prison, but it’s not what most people think. It’s not these huge walls surrounding this giant structure, it’s 18,000 acres, the size of Manhattan. Most of its farm property and so there’s cattle all over the prison. So when you work on the range crew you have a lot of freedom within the 18,000 acres. But you have long hours and you work seven days a week because the nature of the job is you’re always sort of on call because you’re dealing with cattle. 

Q. How did you end up getting out so much earlier than expected?

A. So after the Montgomery decision in 2016, I was fortunate to be the first juvenile lifer in Louisiana to have a parole hearing. Not because I had served the most time, not because I was the most deserving, but because my family could afford to hire an attorney for me.  

I found out at 10:30 am on June 9, 2016 that I was getting out of prison.  I woke up that morning, not thinking that I would be going home. And at 4:30 pm that same day, I walked out. 

My aspiration when I first came to prison was to come home before my parents died. To be frank, you may daydream about what ifs, but you never really think about it seriously. What reason did I have to believe that I would get out?  I saw most lifers die in prison and the ones who did get out were very old. So this idea of I’m going to be 34 and I’m going to go to college, and I’m going to start a nonprofit and I’m going to start a family, those are things I never allowed myself to believe. I was going to be maybe 60 if I got out and 60-year-olds don’t start college, start nonprofits, and start families.

So I’m home. And I’m like, ‘Okay, what now?’ And I had this survivor’s guilt that I needed to do something with. 

Q. What did you do next?

A. Leaving Angola, I had a lot of guilt, because I was getting out based on Henry Montgomery’s Supreme Court decision and he was still there. And there were approximately 300 juvenile lifers in Louisiana at that time, about half of those had served more time than I had. Most of them were people of color. Coming out, while I felt like I was very deserving to get a second chance, I realized that I was no more deserving than so many other people. 

That was my motivation to help found the Parole Project. I wanted to provide as many people as possible who were sentenced as children with pro bono legal representation. But if they came home, I also wanted them to have the support they needed to be successful. It was an abstract idea because at that time there wasn’t something like what we were proposing.

I came home in June of 2016. In August of 2016, we incorporated the Louisiana Parole Project with the state. That same month, I started at Baton Rouge Community College.

Q. How did the community college classes you took inside help prepare you for reentry?

A. The most compelling thing about my story as it relates to prison education is that even though I didn’t earn a degree while I was incarcerated, being able to earn those hours put me on a path to go to college. 

It was such a great feeling to have them do my degree audit and to see on the transcript all the things that I’d already taken. By the time I transferred to Louisiana State, all of my electives were spoken for. It was awesome that I didn’t have to take Biology 1 and Biology 2 and all of those other general education requirements. I was going to college because I was focused on sociology and criminology. 

I ended up getting my degree from LSU, after transferring, in three years. Then I went on to get a master’s degree. That all started with having an opportunity. If  someone didn’t give me a head start, I don’t think I would have gotten as far as I did. And anecdotally, juvenile lifers who come out when they are older went to prison at a time where there wasn’t a culture of education. When they went to prison, the culture was ‘Don’t get killed. It’s a violent place.’ Then, for so long, a lifer could not get enrolled in education programs.  

Q. Is there anything else you want to share about your experience with prison education?

A. I was so fortunate to be able to come home, and have the opportunities I’ve had. I hate for my story to be used as an example that ‘everyone else could do this.’ But not everyone can do it. I could do it because I had family support. I got another job before the Parole Project to pay my bills. I had an employer who was willing to work around my college schedule. 

And for most juvenile lifers who are coming home at 50, 60, 70 years old, there’s this immediate urgency to get into the workforce and to pay bills. They can’t just go to college and have a part time job.  I think several people would like to, but they can’t. The feeling is ‘I wish I could have done this while I was being warehoused for decades.’ 

The message is that we should allow more people to earn degrees while they’re incarcerated. So when they come home from prison, they’re prepared.

What stakeholders don’t want to see, what lawmakers don’t want to see is what it costs to continually incarcerate someone versus what it costs to invest in them upfront. It’s unpopular to say, ‘These people in prison get free education.’ And they don’t realize that means that we don’t have to pay for them to be incarcerated. 

Open Campus national reporter covering the future of postsecondary education in prison.