This week’s Militant tells the story of Herman Wallace, who spent almost his entire life fighting a frame-up murder conviction from within the Louisiana prison system. Wallace was released from prison on October 1st, after a judge ruled that his 1972 murder conviction was in violation of his 14th amendment rights. He died 3 days later, of liver cancer. According to a statement on the Angola3News website, he had been in solitary confinement in the Louisiana State Prison in Angola for an unimaginable 41 years. For 41 years his world was a 6ft by 9ft (about 2m x 3m) cell, for 23 hours of every day.
Angola prison is an 18,000-acre (7,300 ha) prison farm, named after the Angola slave plantation on whose site the prison was built shortly after the overthrow of slavery in the US Civil War. Many of the 5,000 inmates harvest the prison’s cotton, wheat, and corn for wages as low as 4 cents per hour, under the watchful gaze of armed guards on horseback, in conditions not unlike the slavery of earlier times.
Wallace arrived at the prison in 1971. Along with fellow inmates Albert Woodfox and Robert King, he became a member of the Black Panther Party. Together they organised hunger strikes and work strikes to win better conditions for prisoners. King explains in the Militant, “The prison tried to impose punitive measures upon us for doing this, but we continued. And we were very successful… We shed light on conditions in the prisons, the unconstitutional treatment of inmates.”
In 1972 there was a prison riot in which prison guard Brent Miller was killed. Woodfox and Wallace were convicted of the murder, despite having multiple alibi witnesses who placed them far from the scene at the time, and despite numerous inconsistencies and contradictions in the evidence against them. The chief witness against them was a fellow inmate, who was promised, and received, privileges and an early pardon in exchange for his testimony. DNA evidence that could potentially have cleared Woodfox and Wallace was ‘lost’ by prison officials. From the time the guard was killed, they were removed completely from the rest of the prison population, and placed in solitary confinement on the edge of the prison grounds. Another prisoner who provided prison officials with an alibi for Woodfox also found himself in solitary for 20 years. (Details here).
King was convicted of the murder of a fellow inmate in 1973. The three prisoners became known as the Angola 3, and are among the prisoners held longest in continuous solitary confinement anywhere in the world. King was released in 2001, after 29 years in solitary, when his conviction was overturned. He has campaigned against solitary confinement and for the release of all the Angola 3. Woodfox remains in prison. In response to a legal appeal, the prison warden stated in an affadavit the reasons why he thought Woodfox should remain in solitary: “The thing about [Woodfox] is that he wants to demonstrate. He wants to organize. He wants to be defiant. He is still trying to practice Black Pantherism… I still would not want him walking round my prison because he would organize the young new inmates. I would have me all kind of problems, more than I could stand, and I would have the blacks chasing after them. I would have chaos and conflict, I believe that.”
The thing that defies belief about the long years in solitary confinement these men have endured is not the callous and inhuman brutality of their treatment by the prison authorities. As King explains in a video on the Angola3 website, the prison is in many ways ‘the last slave plantation’. What really is incredible is that these three men could come through it unbroken. Woodfox says in a statement on the Angola3 website, “I thought that my cause, then and now, was noble. They might bend me a little bit, they may cause me a lot of pain, they may even take my life, but they will never be able to break me.”
King adds, “He’s still in there, still fighting. He will hold out. But this goes beyond us, it’s a growing movement against long-term solitary confinement,” King said. “It’s been our main focus and it’s now Herman’s legacy. We’re a huge body of people, we’re growing and becoming more vocal.”
I will write more on the fight against long-term solitary confinement and the struggle to keep prisoners connected to the world beyond the prison walls in a future post.