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How the NFL is helping men get out of prison — Andscape

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By spring 2022, Larry Garrett had already served nearly 37 years in Alabama state prisons after receiving a mandatory sentence of life without the possibility of parole for a 1985 burglary. He figured he’d die of old age behind bars.

But then the Talladega native received an unsolicited letter from the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, a Montgomery-based nonprofit known for freeing men serving life sentences when their crimes didn’t result in physical harm to others.

“The first letter I got from Appleseed read like, ‘We looked at your case. We are not promising anything, but you fit all the criteria that we look for in trying to get people who have life without parole out of prison,’” Garrett, 69, recalled in an interview with Andscape.

With Appleseed’s assistance, Garrett was able to walk out a free man in December 2022 after a district attorney agreed to his release.

Garrett wasted little time reacclimating back to society. He immediately started taking classes at a Birmingham Salvation Army, which led him to get his commercial driver’s license. Since August, he’s worked as a truck driver and visited 42 states.

Garrett is part of a select group of 16 inmates, ranging in age from 41 to 89, freed with the help of Appleseed after serving two decades or more of a sentence of life without parole under Alabama’s draconian 1979 Habitual Felony Offender Act. It mandated life imprisonment without parole for anyone convicted of a major felony after having been convicted of any three previous felonies. The law was changed in 2000 to stipulate all previous crimes had to be “major felonies” in order to be sentenced to life, but that didn’t help men like Garrett who were sentenced under the previous statue.

But Alabama Appleseed has a secret weapon in its fight for criminal justice reform: the National Football League.

The NFL’s Inspire Change social-justice initiative kicked off in 2018, two years after the league became embroiled in an intense debate about whether players should be allowed to kneel during the national anthem to protest police brutality. By 2020, the league had apologized to the players and started donating hundreds of millions of dollars to nonprofits to affect social change, especially in underserved communities.

Appleseed, as the group is also known, has received a six-figure grant every year since 2020, and the league has gone to great lengths to highlight the organization’s work. In 2022, the league released a 30-second commercial narrated by NFL defensive end Trey Flowers III, an Alabama native, which included the story of Motis Wright, a former inmate also freed with Appleseed’s assistance.

After his release, Wright started driving big-rigs and, in an ironic twist, delivered a load from Miami to Arizona in early 2023 that turned out to be the fireworks for the Super Bowl halftime show.

Such success stories, NFL executives said, demonstrate the value that groups like Alabama Appleseed bring.

“It’s inspiring and yet at the same time, it’s humbling, infuriating that they’ve been in there for so long,” Clare Graff, the NFL’s vice president of corporate social responsibility, said of the men who were sentenced to life but are now free.

And men like Garrett say they’re appreciative that the NFL cared about what they were going through with their life sentences.

“I think a lot about that,” Garrett said when asked about the NFL’s role in supporting Appleseed. “It’s very beautiful that they are doing that because that’s what Appleseed needs – some support.”


Ramzee Robinson (center) spoke to a group of advocates in Birmingham, Alabama, sharing his story as someone with incarcerated family members. From left to right: Lee Davis, Joe Bennet, Robinson, John Coleman and Alonzo Hurth.

Bernard Troncale

The NFL, of course, hasn’t always come down on the right side of America’s social-justice debates. In 2016, then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick came under fire for kneeling during the national anthem to protest racism and police violence. Other players around the league joined in to varying degrees and were criticized by some team owners. Kaepernick was never offered another NFL contract after being released by the 49ers and settled a collusion claim with the league three years later.

In 2020 amid a wave of Black Lives Matter protests, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell finally provided a full-throated apology to the players who had protested and admitted the league was wrong.

Inspire Change was the NFL’s way of making good on having a more-strategic approach to its work on issues like criminal justice reform, police and community relations, education and economic advancement. The initiative is described as being “aimed at reducing barriers to opportunity, particularly in communities of color, and showcasing how the NFL family is working together to create positive change.”

Appleseed is one of the NFL’s 40 Inspire Change grant partners, said Anna Isaacson, the league’s senior vice president of social responsibility.

“In the wake of the murder of George Floyd, we announced a $250 million commitment from the NFL family to social justice,” Isaacson told Andscape. “We had already been contributing funds since we had been working on social justice, but in 2020 we really extended and expanded that commitment to $250 million.

“We were very pleased with the generosity of NFL owners and clubs to exceed that commitment four years early and have now surpassed $300 million in contributions to social justice for the NFL family,” she said.

The NFL realizes that to have its greatest impact and to make needed social-justice progress, it has to count on grassroots organization as well as its national nonprofit partners, Graff said.

“If what we’re focused on right now is the sort of work that the Appleseed organizations are doing, then that’s where our focus is,” Graff said. “If we’re giving money here, there, and everywhere without a strategy behind it, we’re not going to be able to show that we actually helped change things.”

While Alabama is a state without an NFL team, the state has enough social ills the league wants to help find solutions for, Isaacson said.

“When it comes to a place like Alabama, it may not be an NFL club market, but we know it’s an incredibly important market to football,” Isaacson said. “We’re also aware of the struggles that have happened in Alabama and have been taking place in the prison system and criminal justice in Alabama. And we really want to go where the need is in addition to obviously serving where we know our fans are”

Alabama Appleseed has identified about 250 inmates serving life sentences without the possibility of parole in Alabama who fit the criteria for potential release and is lobbying the state legislature to pass what’s been called the Second Chance bill. Seventy-five percent of those inmates are Black, Appleseed says on its website. The bill would let judges resentence older inmates who committed crimes in which no one was physically harmed, something they currently don’t have the authority to do.

Today, the power to resentence inmates lies in the hands of elected district attorneys in each of the state’s 41 judicial circuits, said Carla Crowder, a lawyer and Alabama Appleseed’s executive director. The 16 inmates released thus far come from only four judicial circuits. The organization has been rebuffed in many of the other larger circuits in its attempts to get prosecutors to agree to free inmates, she said.

Many of these cases are robbery, which is considered a violent offense in Alabama and other states. Appleseed’s distinction is that no one was harmed during the crime, which has been a tough sell to most district attorneys in Alabama, which is often called a “law-and-order state.”

With Appleseed’s assistance, Larry Garrett walked out of prison in December 2022 after a district attorney agreed to his release.

Alabama Appleseed

Garrett grew up in Talladega in the east central part of Alabama. He and his three younger brothers were raised by their mom Louise. Garrett and his next younger brother never knew their father, but his mom later married his two younger siblings’ father. His stepfather was a gambler and physically abused Louise, Garrett and one of his brothers, Marshall, who is 66, told me.

Despite working up to 14 hours a day in a restaurant, Louise had trouble paying the bills, Garrett said. He tried to help her with money as a teen by getting odd jobs, including one pumping gas for $2 a day. Garrett graduated from high school in Talladega in 1972. That fall, he went into the U.S. Army, where he started driving trucks delivering ammunition to the firing range.

He returned home from the military in 1977 and landed a variety of jobs that never paid well enough for his liking or employed him only seasonally, such as working as a heavy-machine operator.

Garrett became a burglar on the side to make ends meet and, for a while, things got better at home.

“I had to help my mother the best I could, and I did that,” he said. “She didn’t have no one to provide for her and I was just losing it, wanting to do for her and to help take care of my younger brothers.”

“I didn’t care whether I had it or not,” he said of the things his family needed. “I just wanted them to have it. I just wanted her to have it.”

But it came with a cost. In 1980, according to his petition for release, Garrett racked up four convictions for fourth-degree burglary.

Over the years he said he tried to stay on the straight and narrow. “I worked as a carpenter. I had all kinds of jobs and training and skills,” Garrett said. In 1985, he was pursuing his commercial driver’s license, but he was also breaking into homes. After being spotted breaking into a home, Garrett got caught in the act. 

Garrett owned up to what he had done and pleaded guilty to first-degree burglary. But his lawyer neglected to tell him that because of his four prior burglary convictions from 1980, his sentencing would fall under the habitual-felon statute, meaning he’d get a mandatory life without parole.

From left to right: The Garrett brothers — Marshall, Larry and Leamon — in 2022.

Alabama Appleseed

Doing the time wasn’t easy, Garrett said. In 1987, his youngest brother and his brother’s wife were shot and killed by a neighbor on a rampage after a dispute with his own wife. The shooter’s wife was also shot and paralyzed, but survived.

Garrett began working in the kitchen at St. Clair Correctional Facility as an assistant baker before becoming an actual baker. In 1997, he was moved to the William C. Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, a maximum-security prison that houses death row inmates. His mom would make sure he had what he needed, putting money into his prison account.

At Holman, Garrett lived in the faith-and-character-based honor dorm and continued to work in the kitchen. Starting his shift at 2 a.m., Garrett prepared rolls, cornbread and biscuits as well as desserts for the prison; soon, they called him the “Bread Man.” He also played a lot of softball over the years inside prison.

“I love sports and so I did a lot of playing,” he said. “I still play softball today at 69 years old. I probably can play it better than any young guys there.”

Garrett’s mom died in 2007 and that’s when his younger brother Marshall, now 66, started sending Garrett $100 to $150 every month. Marshall said, “They give him a 37-year sentence for a five-year case, maybe.”

About seven years ago, Garrett said he was stabbed by an inmate fiending for drugs. He had to be flown to Montgomery for life-threatening wounds. “Everyone’s at risk,” he said. “Drugs cause the most problems in prison.”

Prior to Appleseed showing up, the Bread Man had unsuccessfully filed dozens of petitions of his own trying to get out of prison. When Appleseed showed up, 11 guards agreed to write references for him. One wrote, “Garrett is a great kitchen worker. His skills should be used in the free world.”

In fact, in 2020, when prison officials decided to close down most of Holman, except for death row, Garrett, was one of the prison’s 150 inmates kept around to help feed those facing the death sentence and to work the industrial areas of the prison, which includes making license plates for the Department of Motor Vehicles and sheets and pillows for the prison system.

But Garrett wanted a future on the outside of the prison walls. In the summer of 2022, his dream began to materialize when he received his first letter from Alabama Appleseed. Appleseed’s research director had learned of Garrett’s case from the woman who taught her daughter how to ride horses. That woman’s dad was a Holman chaplain.

In July 2022, Crowder, a veteran prison legal advocate, showed up at Holman and began collecting information from Garrett that Appleseed would need to pursue his freedom.

Five months later, on Dec. 19, 2022, Garrett finally shook hands with the warden and walked out of the gates a free man. He decided to finish those truck-driving classes he had started 37 years earlier and, once he did, he hit the road. That’s where you can find him today.

“It just hits me, ‘Man, you ain’t out here. You still down there in that prison,” Garrett said he often tells himself. “Every blue moon it hits me. And then when it dawns on me that I’m out, a new sensation goes through me again.”

When he’s not on the road, Garrett lives in housing for former prisoners reentering society. He has one dream remaining.

“What I want is a house,” said Garrett. “And I want to be happy.”

Dwayne Bray is a senior writer for Andscape. He writes about topics ranging from general sports to race relations to poverty. He previously ran ESPN television’s award-winning investigative team and is a die-hard Cleveland sports fan.



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