When Ilene Hurd Smoot’s brother went to prison in 2004, she was angry at him at first. Their parents had strived to raise them right; their father was a deacon at their childhood church in Mississippi and the siblings sang in the choir. “They were hardworking people,” Ilene said. “They didn’t steal. They worked for everything they had.” Her brother, Shannon Hurd, was mischievous growing up, she says, but he had never done anything to hurt anyone. His main problem was a drug addiction he couldn’t seem to shake, which led to a couple of arrests in his 20s. Although she was the baby of the family, Ilene felt protective of her older brother. “I used to say, ‘Shannon, please, whatever you do, just be good.’”
But in 2003, Shannon was arrested for walking into a home in Kenner, Louisiana, and stealing $14 from an elderly couple. He insisted police had the wrong man — the couple had not seen his face — but his clothes closely resembled the description of the culprit, and the cops discovered $14 when they found him soon after the robbery. Despite his relatively minor crime, at trial the state cast Shannon as “the worst kind of defendant. He’s a predator.” In a 11-1 split, the jury found him guilty. He was given 30 years in prison.
But Jefferson Parish prosecutors weren’t satisfied. On September 10, 2004, according to court records, “the state introduced fingerprint cards, certified copies of convictions, and arrest registers” from Shannon’s previous run-ins with the law. They dated back to the 1990s. One was for unauthorized entry. Another was for “theft over $500.” A third, in 1997, was possession of a firearm by a felon. On December 4, 2004, under Louisiana’s habitual offender law, Shannon was resentenced to life without parole.
Ilene was incredulous — “Life for $14? Come on, seriously?” — but she couldn’t help but be mad at her brother. “I kind of like cut off communication with him,” she admitted. But for years Shannon kept writing to her anyway, certain that she would respond eventually. That moment came suddenly, when Ilene opened a letter in April 2014. Shannon was gravely ill. He had long complained about a pain in his side, but prison doctors dismissed the symptoms. By the time he was diagnosed with kidney cancer, the tumors had spread to his brain. “Please don’t think I’m playing games with y’all,” Shannon wrote in his letter to his sister. “I’m sick and I don’t want to die alone.”
Ilene immediately got back in touch with her brother, going to see him at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, known as Angola. As he deteriorated, advocates helped him apply for medical parole or compassionate release, but officials rejected the request, citing behavior violations during Shannon’s time in the prison hospice. In a letter last summer to Louisiana Department of Corrections Secretary James LeBlanc, Catholic nun and prison activist Alison McCrary called it “wildly inappropriate” to subject Shannon to disciplinary measures. “Mr. Hurd is a dying man with multiple brain tumors taking steroid medication, all of which means that his control over his behavior is diminished for reasons he has no control over,” she wrote, to no avail.
On Sunday, March 5, at age 42, Shannon died at Angola. Ilene was by his side, along with her older sister. Ilene’s 20-year-old daughter made the drive too, but was barred from seeing him despite being on his visiting list. (“They’re like, he didn’t put her on this list.”) Prison officials wanted to bury Shannon quickly, on Tuesday, but he had repeatedly begged them not to leave his body at Angola. Bringing his body home was an expense the siblings could hardly afford, a reality for many families. It is one major reason half of the men who die at Angola are buried there. Still, Ilene was determined to try. The day after her brother’s death, the family put up a crowdfunding webpage seeking money to cover the transportation and funeral expenses. “Shannon was well loved by all, and he was never thrown away,” Ilene wrote. “He was our brother — not just another inmate — and we want to remember him as such.”