Case of Angola Three recalls a brutal time in a US prison
AMERICA:The plight of three African-Americans who have served 107 years in solitary confinement and their fight for justice is set out in a new report
BUILT ON the site of a former slave plantation, the Louisiana state penitentiary is better known as Angola prison, because legend has it that the plantation owner particularly valued his slaves from Angola.
The continuing saga of the Angola Three ought to be a thing of the past. But it lingers stubbornly, defying history. Between them, three ageing African-Americans, Albert Woodfox (64), Herman Wallace (69) and Robert King (69) have served an aggregate of 107 years in solitary confinement.
King has campaigned tirelessly for the liberation of Woodfox and Wallace since he was freed 10 years ago. “I have done a lot,” he said in a telephone interview from Austin Texas, where he now lives. “But I haven’t done enough, because Albert and Herman are still in prison.”
The three lived on the same cell block at Angola in the late 1960s, after unrelated convictions for armed robbery. “What brought us together was an ideology,” King said. “We became politically aware around the same time, and we adopted the principles of the Black Panther Party.” Asked to define that ideology, King quotes from the BPP’s programme: “We want land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice and peace . . . ”
As recounted in USA: 100 Years in Solitary; the Angola Three and Their Fight For Justice, released by Amnesty International this week, the late 1960s and early 1970s were a particularly brutal time in Angola prison. Black and white prisoners were racially segregated. White guards armed white prisoners against the blacks. Murder and sexual slavery were endemic.
Outside the prison, there was a backlash against the achievements of the civil rights movement, especially in the south. The FBI director J Edgar Hoover called the BPP “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country”. Police and Panthers clashed violently.
BPP members Woodfox and Wallace organised prison protests, mainly hunger strikes, in the late 1960s. “We followed what happened later with Bobby Sands in Northern Ireland,” King recalls. “We empathised and sympathised with the Irish.” The Angola prisoners demanded better living conditions, including an end to the rape and sexual exploitation of prisoners.
“I was in prison, but prison was not in me,” King says now. “I insulated myself with this knowledge, with an ideology that was much more humane than the country I lived in.”
In 1972, a prison guard called Brent Miller was murdered. Protesting their innocence, Woodfox and King were convicted and sent to solitary confinement, where they have languished ever since, confined for 23 hours a day in two by three metre cells. Miller’s widow said in 2008 that she believed the men were innocent, and had “been living a nightmare for 36 years”.
King spent the next 29 years in solitary confinement, merely for being a Black Panther militant, he says. He later learned that prison authorities listed him as a suspect in Miller’s murder, though he was 150 miles away when it happened.
There was no physical evidence linking Woodfox and Wallace to the murder. Potentially exculpatory DNA evidence was lost. Documents that emerged later suggested the main eyewitness was bribed by prison officials, and that another inmate committed perjury. A third witness retracted testimony.
Woodfox’s conviction has been overturned twice, yet the order for his retrial or release was rescinded. He is due back in court for a federal review of that decision on September 12th.
Carine Williams, a New York-based attorney with Squire Sanders Dempsey, who have taken up the case of Woodfox and Wallace on a pro bono basis, is impressed by the friendship that binds the Angola Three. They maintain contact as best they can, though Woodfox and Wallace were moved to different prisons over the last two years.
“I sense a camaraderie like no other,” the attorney says. “It reminds me of a sibling relationship, because there is no one but your siblings who knows what you’ve gone through in childhood. They see in each other something that no one else can appreciate or understand.”
The Angola Three case is a complicated mesh of federal and state proceedings, distinct judiciary tracks for each prisoner’s contested murder conviction, and for a civil suit against the state of Louisiana, to which King is also a party.
“The treatment suffered by Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace for the past four decades is cruel and inhuman and a violation of the US’s obligations under international law,” says Colm O’Gorman, executive director of Amnesty Ireland.
Williams likens defending the Angola Three to the labours of Sisyphus. Yet the words of Martin Luther King Jr, quoted often by president Barack Obama, give her courage: “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.”
She recently accompanied King to a congressional hearing in Washington. “It was such a joy to see him in our country’s capital with the cherry blossoms, enjoying a spring day,” she says.
“I am very hopeful that we’ll be able to spend time with Albert and Herman in much the same way.”