The Angola Three: 38 Years in Prison Hell – by Stephen Lendman
On March 30, 2010, an Amnesty International (AI) Public Statement read:
“USA: Amnesty International calls for immediate end to nearly 73 years of solitary confinement endured by Louisiana prisoners Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox.”
Both men are at the Louisiana State Penitentiary (called Angola and The Farm) – in terms of acreage, America’s largest prison, a maximum security one with over 5,000 inmates and 1,800 staff members on 18,000 acres. Once a slave plantation, it’s the same now as then, and it’s legal under the 13th Amendment stating:
“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
Except for brief intervals, Wallace has been there for 38 years, Woodfox for nearly 35 – confined for 23 hours a day in 2 x 3 meter cells with little natural light, and “allowed outdoor exercise in a small cage, for one hour, three days a week, contrary to (what’s) specified in the United Nations Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners. Restrictions are imposed on their personal property, reading materials, access to legal resources, work and visits.” Their cages are unprotected from rain or oppressive heat. Overall, they’re treated like animals, not human beings.
Until March 2009, both were at Angola. Wallace was then transferred to Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel and remains in solitary confinement. They and Robert King are the “Angola 3,” convicts since 1972, for the murder of white prison guard Brent Miller that year. No physical evidence linked them to the crime, their convictions based solely (as later documentation revealed) on bribed inmate testimony in return for leniency. Another witness later recanted.
Although not at Angola at the time, King was blamed but never charged. In 1973, he was bogusly accused of murdering another prisoner, freed only in 2001 after pleading guilty to “conspiracy to commit murder” as a condition for release on time served.
The three men have a civil suit pending against the state of Louisiana, one the US Supreme Court ruled has merit based on claims that their Eight Amendment “cruel and unusual punishment” rights were violated. It will be heard in the US Middle District Court in Baton Rouge, but don’t look for any more justice this time than earlier, especially for poor and disadvantaged blacks.
King’s autobiography was published in 2008 titled, “From the Bottom of the Heap: The Autobiography of a Black Panther.” He’s a member of the Common Ground Collective, a decentralized NGO network formed post-Katrina to help New Orleans residents. He’s also an international speaker at colleges and community centers in America and before parliaments in the Netherlands, South Africa and Portugal.
Still in isolation, Wallace and Woodfox are reported to be in poor health, the result of decades of mistreatment. AI says Wallace’s “osteoarthritis is aggravated by inadequate exercise, functional impairment, memory loss and insomnia.”
Woodfox suffers from “claustrophobia, hypertension, heart disease, chronic renal insufficiency, diabetes, anxiety and insomnia.”
Both men are victims of racism, retribution for their activism, prosecutorial injustice, and a state prison system the Louisiana ACLU calls “the most abhorrent in terms of violence and horrible living conditions.”
Louisiana has the highest per capita incarceration in the world, the ACLU getting over 80 complaints a month about guard beatings, overcrowding, poor medical care or its denial, mistreatment of mentally ill prisoners, squalid living conditions, and denial of access to lawyers.
The Bill of Rights grants constitutional protections to everyone, including persons in custody, regardless of their crime. Especially abhorrent are rigged trials, judicial complicity, wrongful convictions, and appellate unfairness to keep innocent victims incarcerated.
Angola’s Horrific History
Angola has always been hellish, especially in the 1970s when it wreaked of corruption and abuse. It was segregated with horrific rampant rage, frequent murders, and sexual bondage – inmates sold to each other as sex slaves or in exchange for favors. No wonder it was called America’s worst prison, a distinction as true today, including chain of command encouragement of widespread, systematic violence, including guard beatings, sexual assaults, other abuses amounting to torture, and use of solitary confinement as punishment for activism or any other reason arbitrarily.
Today, Angola prisoners are 75% black under a compulsory 40 hour or longer workweeks (eight hours or longer a day, five days a week) plus weekends for bad disciplinary reports, often fabricated for more labor.
They till fields for 4 cents an hour, under constant watch as virtual slaves. In the 1970s, it was 96 hours (16 hours a day, six days a week) for 2 cents an hour at what was called the “Bloodiest Prison in the South” because of endemic guard-inflicted and prisoner-on-prisoner violence.
The Angola 3 fought conditions with nonviolent hunger and work strikes. Prison authorities retaliated by framing them for murders they didn’t commit, Woodfox and Wallace for Miller’s death, King for another prisoner.
Today Angola’s mission statement says:
“The philosophy of Louisiana State Penitentiary (LSP) is to provide services in a professional manner so as to protect the safety of the public, staff, and inmate population. Consistent with this, it is LSP’s responsibility to provide meaningful opportunities to enhance, through a variety of education, work, social service and medical programs, the individual’s desire to become a productive member of society, while providing a safe, stable work environment for employees.”
Inmates see it otherwise, calling reforms “cosmetic.” Former prisoner and now Executive Secretary of the Capital Post-Conviction Project of Louisiana calls Angola a “sophisticated plantation (where) cotton is king” and inmates near slaves – “given enough food, clothing and shelter to be a financial asset to the owner,” but little else.
Louisiana’s entire prison system is no different, Angola the preeminent example, a de facto slave plantation, preventing its inmates from ever “becom(ing) a productive member of society” because long sentences without parole deny it – the idea being once incarcerated, free them only for burial on Angola’s expansive acreage after extracting a lifetime of forced labor.
“The Case of the Angola 3”
For more information, visit Angola3.org.
In the late 1960s, Wallace and Woodfox were incarcerated for unrelated robberies, founded a Black Panther party chapter to improve prison conditions, and were targeted for their activism.
In 2008, a federal judge overturned Woodfox’s conviction after a state judicial magistrate found damning evidence, including:
— “inadequate representation;
— prosecutorial misconduct;
— suppression of exculpatory evidence; and
— racial discrimination in the grand jury selection process.”
Nonetheless, he’s still in solitary because Louisiana officials want him held for life.
In 2006, a state judicial commissioner recommended reversing Wallace’s conviction, again because of compelling prosecutorial misconduct. No matter. He’s also in isolated confinement after a district court denied him, upheld by appellate level refusal to review without explanation.
A habeas petition is now pending in federal court that may prove as constitutionally futile, given their extremist right wing judges, showing little sympathy for oppressed minorities or the poor, and a reluctance to reverse local authorities.
On March 10, The London Guardian’s Erwin James’ article headlined, “37 years of solitary confinement: the Angola three,” saying:
“….at (Angola’s) heart….is an inhumanity that would make Jesus weep,” two of the Angola 3 enduring “the longest period of solitary confinement in American prison history.”
Having spent 20 years imprisoned himself, James:
“attest(s) to the mental impact that (isolation) inflict(s). My first year was spent on a high-security landing where the cell doors were opened only briefly for meals and emptying of toilet buckets. If decent-minded prison officers were on duty we were allowed to walk the yard for 30 minutes a day. The rest of the time we were alone….
As the days, weeks and months blur into one, without realising it you start to live completely inside your head. You dream about the past, in vivid detail – and fantasise about the future, for fantasies are all you have. You panic but it’s no good ‘getting on the bell’ – unless you’re dying – and, even then, don’t hope for a speedy response. I had a lot to think about. When the man in the cell above mine hanged himself I thought about that a lot. I still do. You look at the bars on the high window and think how easy it would be to be free of all the thinking.”
The film, “Land of the Free” tells their story, three men growing up poor in New Orleans. They feared police, “who would regularly ‘clear the books’ of crimes in the area,” King explaining that they’d pin them on disaffected black youths.
“If I saw the police, I used to run,” said King, admitting he committed petty crimes, but “nothing vicious.” Eventually he was bogusly arrested for armed robbery and sentenced to 35 years.
Woodfox also bogusly got 50 years for armed robbery, escaped from the courthouse, returned to Harlem, and got involved with the Black Panthers. After being caught, he was taken to New York’s Tombs, was called “militant,” and returned to New Orleans “where he joined King on the parish block, known – due to the high concentration of Panther activists – as ‘the Panther tier.’ There (he) became a member of the Black Panther party.”
Woodfox and Wallace extended it, “establishing classes in political ideology and exposing injustices.” They worked to improve prison conditions, but their activism made them targets. At the time, guard Miller was killed. Two days later, four “black militants” were accused, including Wallace and Woodfox. One of the four was a plant. Charges against him were dropped. “Another, Chester Jackson, admitted to holding Miller while the guard was stabbed to death,” Jackson turning state’s evidence to cop a plea for a lighter sentence. Wallace and Woodfox were convicted by an all-white jury, sentenced to life without parole, and taken to Angola’s CCR (Closed Cell Restricted) block – solitary confinement.
“King was brought to Angola from the parish prison two weeks after Miller’s killing, as part of a roundup of black radicals. He never met Miller and was in a prison 150 miles away” when it happened. Yet he was identified as a “conspirator” before being held in CCR with Woodfox and Wallace.
The next year, a prisoner named August Kelly was murdered on the tier. Prisoner Grady Brewer admitted sole guilt, saying it was in self-defense. He and King were tried together, the only evidence against King “came from flawed prisoner testimony.” He and Brewer had little counsel consultations before trial. After protesting, the judge ordered their hands shacked behind their backs and mouths gagged with duct tape during trial. They were convicted and got life without parole, King later released on appeal as explained above.
New lawyers later discovered “obfuscation after obfuscation” during trial, the state using a number of jailhouse informants who gave contradictory accounts of what happened. “One was registered blind. The key witness” was Hezikiah Brown who testified he saw the murder. He initially said he saw nothing.
“Three days later, when he was taken from his bunk at midnight by prison officials and promised his freedom if he testified, he agreed to say that he saw Wallace and Woodfox kill Miller.” At the time, he was serving life without parole for multiple rapes.
Wallace and Woodfox persisted. In 1993, Woodfox won an appeal for a new trial that was just as bogus as the first one – an all white jury, a local author (Anne Butler) convinced of his guilt its chairperson, no witnesses called, evidence concealed or not properly investigated, so as expected he was again convicted.
It took King 26 years for his successful appeal after earlier witnesses recanted, and a federal court ordered the district one to reconsider. A deal followed, King pleading guilty to conspiracy for a crime he didn’t commit, his price for freedom as explained above.
Then in 2008, Woodfox’s conviction was overturned after a federal court ruled his constitutional rights were violated at trial. Louisiana Attorney General Buddy Caldwell contested. As a result, he, like Wallace, remains isolated in confinement, victimized by prosecutorial injustice under a system giving disadvantaged blacks none. Decisions are seldom reversed by higher courts, the fate Woodfox and Wallace still contest after decades of prison hell.
Stephen Lendman lives in Chicago and can be reached at email@example.com. Also visit his blog site at sjlendman.blogspot.com and listen to cutting-edge discussions with distinguished guests on the Progressive Radio News Hour on the Progressive Radio Network Thursdays at 10AM US Central time and Saturdays and Sundays at noon. All programs are archived for easy listening.