Moral Low Ground


Angola 3 ‘Political Prisoners’ Herman Wallace & Albert Woodfox Mark 40 Years of Solitary Confinement in Louisiana’s Notorious Angola Prison

Wallace and Woodfox

For the better part of the last 40 years, Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox have been locked away in soul-crushing, mind-destroying solitary confinement, mostly in the notorious Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. By the time they were locked away in 9ft-by-6ft (2.7m-by-1.8m) cells, the pair, along with Robert King, were already doing time at Angola, a former slave plantation then known as America’s toughest prison. Wallace was in for bank robbery; Woodfox for armed robbery. They found themselves incarcerated in a racially-segregated hellscape of hopelessness where conditions were so bad that 31 inmates had once slashed their own Achilles tendons in an act of desperate protest.

In 1971, Wallace, Woodfox and King– today known as the Angola 3— formed a chapter of the Black Panthers in Angola in an attempt to combat the rampant rape, sexual slavery, violence and horrific living conditions endemic in the prison. They organized numerous strikes and sit-downs, and while their valiant efforts brought purpose and hope to many of Angola’s black inmates, they stoked the ire of racist prison officials keen to keep nigger convicts in their place.

Then, on April 17, 1972, a prison guard named Brent Miller was stabbed to death at Angola. The Angola 3 were immediately charged with the killing and locked up in solitary confinement that very same day. Despite a lack of physical evidence linking them to Miller’s murder, and despite the fact that the main eyewitness against the trio was bribed by prison officials, Wallace and Woodfox have remained locked away in maddening solitary confinement ever since.

King was released in 2001 after 29 years in solitary after his conviction was overturned. Woodfox has had two appeal hearings, one in 2008 and another in 2010, which resulted in his conviction being overturned and the full granting of habeas corpus. Judge James Brady of the Federal District Court, Middle District of Louisiana ruled that Woodfox had not received due process at the 1998 replacement for his deeply flawed 1973 trial. Judge Brady cited ineffective assistance of counsel, questionable evidence and irregular practices in overturning Woodfox’s conviction; Woodfox had successfully argued that he could have shown that his conviction was literally bought by the state, whose case was based on the “witness” testimony of jailhouse snitches who were compensated for their cooperation.

Brady ordered Woodfox’s conviction and life sentence to be “reversed and vacated,” but Louisiana Attorney General James “Buddy” Caldwell appealed the ruling to the US Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. That court is known as one of the nation’s most conservative; US Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor even went so far as to reprimand it for “paying lip service to principles” of appellate law due to its staunch upholding of death sentences. The Fifth Circuit Court ruled 2-1 that Judge Brady had erroneously overturned Woodfox’s conviction and he remained locked up in solitary.

Many people don’t realize that solitary confinement is one of the worst types of torture imaginable. In times of war, such imprisonment is banned under the Geneva Conventions. Contact with other people is a basic human need. Without it the mind literally breaks down. A 1992 study of 57 Yugoslav prisoners of war found that the most severe brain abnormalities occurred in the men who had experienced physical trauma, like severe blows to the head, or in those who had been subjected to solitary confinement.

“It’s an awful thing, solitary,” said Sen.John McCain (R-AZ), who spent two of his five years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam in isolation, “it crushes your spirit and weakens your resistance more effectively than any other form of mistreatment.” And John McCain was no stranger to “other forms of mistreatment,” having been horrifically abused by his captors.The US military studied scores of former POWs from the Vietnam War and concluded that  solitary confinement was as excruciating as any physical torture the men had endured. Among detainees at the US concentration camp at Guantánamo Bay, extended periods of isolation sometimes led to serious mental illness, even insanity.

Herman Wallace of the Angola 3 says his memory is deteriorating. Now 70, some of that could be due to age. But much of it certainly has to do with the conditions of his confinement.

“A lot of times I lose it,” he told filmmaker Angad Bhalla, who is directing a documentary called “Herman’s House” about his thoughts and experiences over 40 years in a 9’x6′ box. “I have trouble coming up with the simplest of things, the A,B,C…”

“I have to spend a lot of time reading and writing,” he added. “It helps me to maintain what little sanity I have left, to maintain humanity and dignity to fight back to what people are trying to do to Albert and I from a mental perspective.”

“This is a case of innocence an the abuse of human rights,” Robert King is quoted in The Raw Story. Since being freed more than a decade ago, King travels the world raising awareness of the plight of his comrades. He has addressed the parliaments of France, the Netherlands, Portugal, Indonesia, Brazil and Britain and has been received as a guest of the African National Congress in South Africa.

But still, 14,610 days after that hapless guard’s murder, Wallace and Woodfox remain caged in brutally inhumane solitary confinement, with no end in sight. The pair have been brought before more than 150 prison boards, where officials review their status and send them straight back to solitary.

Anyone who says there are no political prisoners in the United States would do well to study up on the case of the Angola 3 and make up their own mind. The following film, The Angola 3: Black Panthers and the Last Slave Plantation by Jimmy O’Halligan, is a good start.



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