On Friday October 4, 2013 Herman Wallace died of terminal liver cancer at Louisiana State University's Medical Center in New Orleans. Wallace had only been a free man as of Tuesday October 1, before that he had spent the last 41 years in continuous solitary confinement in Angola Prison (Louisiana State Penitentiary). A relatively unknown case on the national scene, Wallace along with fellow inmates Robert Hillary King and Albert Woodfox were convicted of the murder of a prison guard in 1972.
Many believe the conviction for the murder of
prison guard Brent Miller to have been a frame-up. Amnesty International condemned Louisiana
writing, “Both men [Wallace and Woodfox] were convicted of the murder
of a prison guard in 1973, yet no physical evidence links them to the crime –
potentially exculpatory DNA evidence has been lost and the testimony of the
main eyewitness has been discredited. Citing racial discrimination, misconduct
by the prosecution, and inadequate defense, state and federal judges have
overturned Woodfox’s conviction three times, while Wallace’s case is once again
up for review before the federal courts.”
Even Teenie Verret, Brent Miller’s wife at the time, does not believe these men are guilty stating in the documentary In the Land of the Free: “I’ve been living this for 36 years. There’s not a year that goes by that I don’t have to relive this. And it just keeps going and going. And then these men, I mean, if they did not do this—and I believe that they didn’t—they have been living a nightmare for 36 years.”
This argument seems further bolstered by the fact that Robert Hillary King was not even at Angola the day the prison guard was stabbed. He was being held at the Orleans Parish Prison and didn't transfer to Angola until after the murder. Upon arrival in Angola he was thrown in solitary because he “wanted to play lawyer for another inmate.” He was then quickly roped into the murder charge and was bound and gagged at trial. He remained in solitary for 29 years before finally pleading to a lesser charge of conspiracy to commit murder in exchange for a release on time served.
Albert Woodfox had his conviction overturned 3 different times only to have the conviction upheld upon repeal twice, with the third currently being bitterly fought by Louisiana Attorney General James Caldwell. In 2010 Woodfox was moved to a different prison 7 hours from his family and supporters as a way to further isolate him and remove attention from this case. While in solitary, Woodfox has been subject to repeated strip searches and cavity searches (up to 6 a day). While a federal judge granted Wallace's request for compassionate release (to die outside the prison), the state of Louisiana immediately appealed the decision and a grand jury re-indicted Wallace on October 3. Had Wallace not died the very next day he would have been headed back to a solitary cell.
The Warden of Angola Prison, Burl Cain, has advised keeping Wallace and Woodfox in solitary confinement (their original terms have long since expired) because of what he calls their belief in “Black Pantherism.” [The tie that bound all 3 men in 1972 was their membership in the prison chapter of the Black Panther Party.] In a 2008 deposition Warden Cain told Woodfox’s attorneys who asked what he would do if Woodfox and Wallace were found not guilty of Miller’s murder: “Okay, I would still keep him in CCR [solitary confinement]…I still know that he is still trying to practice Black Pantherism, and I still would not want him walking around 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.
Upon the most recent overturning of Woodfox’s conviction the federal judge affirmed the role of racism in the conviction. From Amnesty International:
“Judge Brady found that the state had failed to meet its burden “to dispel the inference of intentional discrimination” indicated by the statistical evidence covering a 13-year period from 1980 to 1993 presented by Albert Woodfox’s lawyers. The state, Judge Brady found, had failed to show “racially neutral” reasons to explain the under-representation of African-Americans selected as grand jury foreperson during this period.”
The primary eye witness to the Miller murder has since recanted his testimony and admitted to being bribed by guards to finger Wallace and Woodfox as the perpetrators.
Now that Wallace has
been released and subsequently passed away, Woodfox is widely believed to be
the longest serving (41 years) inmate in solitary confinement in the world. Solitary confinement
qualifies as torture under international law, particularly when it is used
against political prisoners. The United States is violating a variety of
international treaties and the 8th Amendment of the Constitution by
engaging in the practice. The US has more inmates in solitary confinement and more held for longer periods of time than any other country in the world; 80,000 inmates are held in solitary at any one time in US prisons.
Far from being a last-resort measure reserved for the “worst of the worst,” solitary confinement has become a control strategy of first resort in many prisons and jails. Today, inmates can be placed in complete isolation for months or years not only for violent acts but for possessing contraband, testing positive for drug use, ignoring orders, or using profanity. Thousands of prisoners are held in indefinite solitary confinement because they have been named as gang members by other inmates who are rewarded for the information. Others have ended up in solitary because they have untreated mental illnesses, are children in need of “protection,” are gay or transgender, are Muslim, have unsavory political beliefs, or report rape or abuse by prison officials. In Virginia, a group of Rastafarian men were placed in solitary–some for more than a decade–because they refused to cut their hair on religious grounds.
The case of the Angola 3 raises important issues about the nature of imprisonment and demands that we reconsider many of those imprisoned as political prisoners. Their imprisonment spans the time between the old and new Jim Crow. The plight of Wallace, Woodfox and King exposes the continuity of corruption and racism in the prison system. Their incarceration should command our attention, yet at best their story is relegated to the back pages of the news. As a society we should demand answers to the questions raised by the trumped up charges that kept 3 men in solitary confinement for decades. And we should question a prison system that again and again finds prison inmates find punished for organizing under the "wrong" set of politics.
For more on solitary confinement visit the activist group Solitary Watch
To learn more about human rights and solitary confinement read: Elizabeth Vasiliades, "Solitary Confinement and International Human Rights: Why the US Prison System Fails Global Standards," American University International Law Review , Vol. 21 No. 1, 2005.
For more reading on modern US policing and the prison systems read: Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness and Christian Parenti's Lockdown America: Police and Prisons in the Age of Crisis