(photo: Herman Wallace)
For the better part of four decades, Victory Wallace, 70, has made a monthly trip from New Orleans to the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola to visit her brother Herman, who just turned 68. The 140-mile journey has shades of Heart of Darkness, following the course of the Mississippi River to a remote prison colony from which most inmates never return. At the dark heart of this former slave plantation, Herman Wallace has lived most of the past 37 years in solitary confinement, imprisoned alone for 23 hours a day in a 6-by-9-foot cell.
When Herman was moved in the spring of 2009 from Angola to Hunt Correctional Center near Baton Rouge, Vickie's trip got a bit shorter. But what she found when she arrived on her most recent visit was even worse than usual. Because of a disciplinary infraction, Herman had been placed in "extended administrative lock down." That meant Vickie was denied a contact visit, and was permitted to see her brother only through a glass partition as they spoke over a telephone. His hands were shackled to the table. (Other recent visitors reported that the shackles made it hard for him to hold the phone to his ear, while his hearing loss made communication over the telephone difficult.) Herman complained to Vickie that he was cold, and she thought that he had lost weight. His spirits, she said, were not the best.
For years, Herman Wallace's hopes have ridden on two cases that are inching their way through the courts--one challenging his conviction, the other challenging his long-term solitary confinement. Now, after a decade of starts and stops, obstacles and delays, both cases are advancing toward conclusions that will determine how he spends what's left of his life.
With the exception of a few brief intervals, Wallace has been living in lock down since 1972, when he was accused of murdering a young Angola prison guard. Along with another inmate named Albert Woodfox, he was tried, convicted, and sentenced to life without parole. Wallace, Woodfox, and a third longtime prisoner called Robert King--who are known as the Angola 3--are also plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit alleging that their unparalleled time in solitary violates the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The case --which could potentially affect the estimated 25,000 American prisoners living in long-term lockdown--is expected to come to trial in the US District Court in Baton Rouge in early 2010.
Since 1990, Wallace has also been appealing his criminal conviction in the Louisiana state courts.
He believes that he was targeted for the guard's murder because of his
involvement in Angola's
chapter of the Black Panther Party, which had been organizing against
conditions in what was then known as "the bloodiest prison in the
South." Wallace contends that the prosecution's witnesses--all of them
fellow Angola prisoners--were coached, bribed, coerced, or threatened into
giving false testimony against him by prison employees bent on revenge.
"If they could have hung and burned the guys involved they would
have," one inmate witness later told Wallace's lawyers. "But there
was too much light on the situation."
Documents and testimony that have surfaced since the trial show that prosecutors knew a good part of their case was unreliable or manufactured. The state's own judicial commissioner, assigned to study the case in 2006, recommended that Wallace's conviction be overturned. Even the prison guard's widow has publicly stated that she now doubts  the guilt of the two men convicted of her husband's murder, and still wants to see his killers brought to justice. But the Louisiana courts, one after another, have rejected his appeal, providing no reasons for their decisions.
Now, Wallace has turned to the federal courts. On December 4, he filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus--basically, a plea for a reversal of his wrongful conviction. It is his last chance to win a new trial, and possibly his freedom. On his side are a team of skilled pro-bono attorneys who have assembled a brief full of evidence that was hidden or suppressed 35 years ago during his original trial. Against him is an increasingly conservative federal court system, along with two of the most powerful figures in Louisiana criminal justice: Angola's famous warden, Burl Cain, and the state's ambitious attorney general, James "Buddy" Caldwell, both of whom appear determined to fight to the bitter end to ensure that Herman Wallace never again sees the light of day.
The incident that condemned Herman Wallace to a life in lock down took place at a particularly explosive time in Angola's notoriously violent history. In the early 1970s, Louisiana's 5,000-man penitentiary was the nation's largest prison; it was also notorious for its high rates of murder, rape, and assault. The former slave plantation's 18,000 acres were farmed by prisoners working up to 96 hours a week, overseen by armed inmate guards, known as "trusties." The trusties also oversaw gambling, drug-dealing, and a monstrous system of sexual slavery--sanctioned by some of the all-white corrections officers, who were referred to by staff and inmates alike as "freemen."
"Angola in those days was life and death, buying and selling people, and the officers knew it was happening," Howard Baker, a prisoner who testified at Wallace's trial, stated in a subsequent affidavit. "There was a goon squad of guards. If they came after you, you could get anything from a beating to being killed, and they'd call it being killed by trying to escape." In addition, Baker said, "Physical conditions were about as bad as you can get: hot, dirty, overcrowded. Weapons were everywhere. You could shake down for weapons one night and have just as many the next. I saw as many as four stabbings a week, week after week."
It was also a time of simmering tensions between longtime employees--many of whom had grown up in the staff community on the prison's grounds--and Angola's new "reformist" leadership. A few years earlier, Warden C. Murray Henderson and Deputy Warden Lloyd Hoyle had been brought in from out of state to "clean up Angola." As Wallace's habeas petition states:
Their arrival at Angola disrupted [the Louisiana State Penitentiary's] existing leadership, most of whom had worked their way up the ranks at Angola. Associate Warden Hayden Dees and the old-guard leadership notably resisted their reform efforts, particularly those aimed at ending racial segregation and those directed at according inmates in extended lockdown, known as CCR (closed cell restriction), with due process. Associate Warden Dees in particular believed that "a certain type of militant or revolutionary inmate, maybe even a communist type," should remain under lockdown conditions at all times; he wanted nothing to do with documenting decisions about who went into lockdown and for how long in compliance with federal court requirements.
Among the "militant" inmates were Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox, both serving time for armed robbery. After they arrived at Angola they became active members of the prison's chapter of the Black Panther Party. This cadre of inmates organized petitions and hunger strikes to protest the horrendous conditions at the prison, and helped new inmates, known as "fresh fish," protect themselves from sexual assault and enslavement. For their efforts, some of the Panthers were placed in solitary confinement to suppress what was viewed as a threat to prison authority.
On April 17, 1972, 23-year-old guard Brent Miller was found in front of an inmate dormitory, stabbed 32 times. Investigators initially had no suspects, but they soon zeroed in on the activists. In a written description  [PDF] of his case, Wallace stated that Hayden Dees, the associate warden, "went well out of his way to tie us in with the death for his own political gain. He claimed that Henderson and Hoyle were responsible for Miller's death by releasing the 'militants' (he linked me and Woodfox to those released)."
Statements from Henderson and Hoyle confirm that some of the guards considered them complicit in the killing. Three days later, Lloyd Hoyle, the deputy warden, was called from home to a meeting of staff members, who accused him of turning loose Miller's murderers. Hoyle was assaulted and pushed through a plate glass door, and nearly bled to death before one of the guards decided to drive him to the hospital.