The Angola Three: Torture in Our Own Backyard
By Hans Bennett
(Alternet.org, May 2, 2009)
(PHOTO: left to right; Herman Wallace, Robert King, Albert Woodfox)
"My soul cries from all that I witnessed and endured. It does more than cry, it mourns continuously," said Black Panther Robert Hillary King, following his release from the infamous Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola in 2001, after serving his last 29 years in continuous solitary confinement. King argues that slavery persists in Angola and other US prisons, citing the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution, which legalizes slavery in prisons as "a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted." King says: "You can be legally incarcerated but morally innocent."
Robert King, Albert Woodfox, and Herman Wallace are known as the 'Angola Three,' a trio of political prisoners whose supporters include Amnesty International, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Congressman John Conyers, and the ACLU. Kgalema Mothlante, the President of South Africa says their case "has the potential of laying bare, exposing the shortcomings, in the entire US system." Woodfox and Wallace are the two co-founders of the Angola chapter of the Black Panther Party (BPP)-the only official prison chapter of the BPP. Both convicted in the highly contested stabbing death of white prison guard Brent Miller, Woodfox and Wallace have now spent over 36 years in solitary confinement.
The joint federal civil rights lawsuit of King, Woodfox, and Wallace, alleging that their time in solitary confinement is "cruel and unusual punishment," will go to trial any month in Baton Rouge, at the U.S. Middle District Court. Herman Wallace's appeal against his murder conviction is currently pending in the Louisiana Supreme Court, and on March 18, he was transferred to the Hunt Correctional Facility in St. Gabrielo, Louisiana, where he remains in solitary confinement. On March 2, the US Fifth Circuit Court heard oral arguments regarding Albert Woodfox's conviction, after the Louisiana Attorney General appealed a lower court's ruling that overturned the conviction.
An 18,000-acre former slave plantation in rural Louisiana, Angola is the largest prison in the US. Today, with African Americans composing over 75% of Angola's 5,108 prisoners, prison guards known as "free men," a forced 40-hour workweek, and four cents an hour as minimum wage, the resemblance to antebellum US slavery is striking. In the early 1970s, it was even worse, as prisoners were forced to work 96-hour weeks (16 hours a day / 6 days a week) with two cents an hour as minimum wage. Officially considered (according to its own website) the "Bloodiest Prison in the South" at this time, violence from guards and between prisoners was endemic. Prison authorities sanctioned prisoner rape, and according to former Prison Warden Murray Henderson, the prison guards actually helped facilitate a brutal system of sexual slavery where the younger and physically weaker prisoners were bought and sold into submission. As part of the notorious "inmate trusty guard" system, responsible for killing 40 prisoners and seriously maiming 350 from 1972-75, some prisoners were given state-issued weapons and ordered to enforce this sexual slavery, as well as the prison's many other injustices. Life at Angola was living hell-a 20th century slave plantation.
The Angola Panthers saw life at Angola as modern-day slavery and fought back with non-violent hunger strikes and work strikes. Prison authorities were outraged by the BPP's organizing, and overwhelming evidence has since emerged that authorities retaliated by framing these three BPP organizers for murders that they did not commit.
Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace
Both convicted of murder for the April 17, 1972 stabbing death of white prison guard Brent Miller, Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace have recently had major victories in court that may soon lead to their release. In response, Angola Warden Burl Cain and the Louisiana State Attorney General, James "Buddy" Caldwell, are doing everything they can to resist this and to keep the two in solitary confinement. In sharp contrast, Miller's widow, Leontine Verrett, now questions their guilt. Interviewed in March, 2008, by NBC Nightly News, she called for a new investigation into the case: "What I want is justice. If these two men did not do this, I think they need to be out."
Woodfox and Wallace were inmates at Angola, resulting from separate robbery convictions, when they co-founded the Angola BPP chapter in 1971. Woodfox had escaped from New Orleans Parish Prison and fled to New York City, where he met BPP members, including the New York 21, before he was recaptured and sent to Angola. Wallace had met members of the Louisiana State Chapter of the BPP, including the New Orleans 12, while imprisoned at Orleans Parish.
On September 19, 2006, State Judicial Commissioner Rachel Morgan recommended overturning Wallace's conviction, on grounds that prison officials had withheld evidence from the jury that prison officials had bribed the prosecution's key eyewitness, Hezekiah Brown, in return for his testimony. However, in May 2008, in a 2-1 vote, the State Appeals Court rejected Morgan's recommendation and refused to overturn the conviction. Wallace's appeal is now pending in the State Supreme Court, with a decision expected any month.
On June 10th, 2008, Federal Magistrate Christine Noland recommended overturning Woodfox's conviction, citing evidence of inadequate representation, prosecutorial misconduct, suppression of exculpatory evidence, and racial discrimination. Then, on November 25, US District Court Judge James Brady upheld Noland's recommendation, overturned the conviction, and granted bail. Attorney General Caldwell responded by appealing to the US Fifth Circuit. In December, the Fifth Circuit granted Caldwell's request to deny Woodfox bail, but indicated sympathy for the overturning of the conviction, writing: "We are not now convinced that the State has established a likelihood of success on the merits." On March 3, oral arguments were heard by appellate Judges Carolyn Dineen King, Carl E. Steart and Leslie H. Southwick, and a decision from them is now expected within six months. If the three judge panel affirms the overturning of Woodfox's conviction, the state will have 120 days to either accept the ruling or to retry Woodfox. The state has already vowed to retry him if necessary. If the Fifth Circuit rules for the state, Woodfox's conviction will be reinstated.
Ira Glasser, formerly of the ACLU, criticized AG Caldwell, writing that following the October 2008 announcement that Woodfox's niece had agreed to take him in if granted bail, Caldwell "embarked upon a public scare campaign reminiscent of the kind of inflammatory hysteria that once was used to provoke lynch mobs. He called Woodfox a violent rapist, even though he had never been charged, let alone convicted, of rape; he sent emails to [Woodfox's niece's] neighbors calling Woodfox a convicted murderer and violent rapist; and neighbors were urged to sign petitions opposing his release. In the end, his niece and family were sufficiently frightened and threatened that Woodfox rejected the plan to live with them while on bail." In his Nov. 25 ruling, Judge Brady himself criticized the intimidation campaign: "it is apparent that the [neighborhood] association was not told Mr. Woodfox is frail, sickly, and has a clean conduct record for more than twenty years."