Q&A: Prison reform advocate Terrance Winn on gun violence in Shreveport, Louisiana

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Terrance Winn, prison reform advocate and director of PIPES, poses for a portrait in Shreveport, Louisiana, on April 17, 2024.

Terrance Winn, prison reform advocate and director of PIPES, poses for a portrait in Shreveport, Louisiana, on April 17, 2024.

Maya Miller, Gulf States Newsroom

Editor’s Note: This is Part 3 of a three-part series examining gun violence and incarceration in Shreveport, Louisiana. You can read other entries in the series here:


Terrance Winn loved sports, was a smart student and thought about going to college. But at the age of 16, he was arrested for a shooting that left one person dead and another person injured.

Like many other young people in Shreveport, Louisiana, he said he was caught up in a world of street violence, gangs and peer pressure. He was charged as an adult and sentenced to life plus 25 years in prison.

At the Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola, he received his G.E.D. and began to tutor other men in reading and math in the state’s most notorious correctional center.

“At the time I went to prison, hope was what they call a glimmer,” Winn said. “It was real dim because people wasn’t going home.”

As decades passed, courts began to question whether people, like Winn, could constitutionally receive life-without-parole sentences for crimes they committed as children. Winn was released in 2020 after serving his sentence for 30 years.

He’s now a prison reform advocate and the director of Priorities, Intentions, Practical Exchanges, or PIPES. Among other things, the group helps mentor kids and keep them out of jail. Winn has testified before United Nations committees in Geneva and a U.S. Senate panel about prison conditions.

In the final installment of a series on gun violence in Shreveport, the Gulf States Newsroom’s Kat Stromquist sat down with Winn at his organization’s new building on Greenwood Road to talk about what causes this community to struggle with shootings, and what could help.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

What was going on in your life that led you to where you are now?

The streets have an addiction that, if you haven’t lived it, it can’t be really understood. But it’s just like a drug addiction — the same feeling that a person gets when they get high off of whatever drug they’re on — the streets have that same type of magnetic pull.

The night that [my] crime took place, I got caught up in the peer pressure, and it led to someone losing their life. What separates a kid from an adult is having the ability to stop yourself. An adult can stop themselves. A kid can’t.

So while in prison, I just became a smarter person. I did a lot of reading, a lot of writing, a lot of studying, a lot of praying. I became the person I am today, in prison.

The person I am today is a person that’ll stand up and fight for a person that can’t fight for themselves.

Having been gone for so many years and now having come back and seeing this violence in the community, much of which involves younger people, what is your impression of what is happening now? 

You could say, it’s practically the same thing [as when I was growing up]. But more so now, it’s the lack of guidance.

When I was coming up doing it, the older guys would tell us, “Man, that ain’t right.” Now, the older guys are scared of the young dudes, so they’re like, “I ain’t telling him nothing.” So it’s like they just do it.

Prison removed a stronger generation from the youngsters, a generation that they would have respected and listened to more. So what they saw was a lot of older dudes — that should be the OGs right now — they saw a lot of them doing drugs. They see them getting quiet. They see them showing fear.

[Younger people] don’t respect that. They respect the person that did what they’re doing, that ain’t scared of them and is going to look them in the eyes and talk to them like a man. They’re going to respect that.

They know that that older person is going to listen to them because they want to be heard. They’re tired of being silent. They want their respect. And that’s the big thing. They want to be respected and treated equally.

What are you seeing that’s working, from your group or any other group in terms of curtailing gun violence?

What do I think is working? Connecting with people. And when you connect with people, they respect you. They communicate with you. They don’t want to do what they’re about to do.

It’s like, I got people that are calling me “Man, such-and-such just went and got a gun. Talk to them.”

And they get on the phone and I’m like, “Man, what’s going on?” “Man, I’m finna do it.” “No, no, I’m finna come see you.” And I can talk them out of those situations. And in the end, they’ll be like, “Man, thank you for talking me out of that. Man, thank you.”

Not everyone is going to do that, but that’s one life I’d have saved. That’s two lives I’d have saved, and I’d have saved two families a whole lot. So you got to look at it on a smaller scale.

If I could save one life, I do something. That means something. These different organizations have those people that can connect with what’s going on, and that helps a great deal.

But you could give organizations, like ours, a lot more support. Because you’ve got organizations that’ll fight the crime better than the police will because they’re connected to the people within that community.

And people in those communities don’t want that crime to continue to happen. You’ve got people getting smarter and smarter, and understanding that if crime continues to happen in our communities, the value of our property continues to decrease. I’m tired of it, you know?

What do you think of policing in the city? What’s your impression of it? 

That’s a question that’s kind of — I’m laughing because it’s like, for some reason, I kind of rubbed the police in the wrong way. People really don’t know where I stand on that, because that question is never asked, but they’ll see me doing active things.

I think that in certain situations, policing is good. They do a good job. But in certain situations, they do a horrible job. I don’t think that’s different than any other police force. But I think here in our city, racism — as hidden as we think it is — it stands out a lot more through our policing. If you can pay attention to it, if you know what you’re looking at, you’ll see it.

And, you know, we’ve had a lot of police murders here. A lot.

So people would think that I hate the police because I stand out against that. I don’t hate the police. But I hate the fact that y’all allow things that happen to the Black community that y’all would never allow to happen to the white community. That hurts, as a Black person with a Black chief of police, a black [district attorney].

I think that they feel like we’re supposed to just be in total agreement with what’s going on. But it’s wrong. Because some of them have to remember when they take off their uniform, you’re just a Black person, too. So it could happen to you, out of that uniform.

So how do we make it better? Do we communicate with one another, the community with the police, to make it better? It doesn’t change. So it’s a hard question to ask.

I can say this: there’s a big need, a huge need, for police. Do I have anything against the police? No, I do not. I like good police. There’s bad police. That’s good and bad in everything. So we can’t overlook that fact in life. But they’ve got some guys that do their job the right way. I like that, I respect that.

If you were talking to your younger self about the situation that you had in the past —  if you could call back in time and talk to that younger version, what would you say to him? 

I would say — if you do this here, you ain’t finna see the streets. You’re gonna lose your mama, you’re gonna lose your daddy, you’re gonna lose your aunt. You’re gonna lose your uncle. Both of your grandmothers.

You’re going to just be trapped. You’re going to be trapped forever. If you make this bad decision, life is over for you.

So I’m saying to you, man, what just happened, that don’t determine who you are as a person. You can walk away from this. Live to fight another day.

This story was produced by the Gulf States Newsroom, a collaboration between Mississippi Public BroadcastingWBHM in Alabama, WWNO and WRKF in Louisiana and NPR

 

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