Imagine being held in solitary confinement, not for a day, not for a year, but for forty years. Imagine entering a cell, four paces long, three paces wide, when Richard Nixon was in the White House and still being confined to that cell, as Barack Obama gears up for re-election. Imagine being confined to that cell for every minute of those forty years apart from time out to shower and a walk around an outdoor cage three times a week, weather permitting. That has been the fate of Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace, two of the so-called ‘Angola 3’, whose story was retold this week in a fine BBC Radio 4 Crossing Continents programme. It is a story not simply of injustice wrought upon three men, but of the inhumanity that lies at the heart of America’s prison and justice systems.
Woodfox and Wallace were convicted in 1969 of armed robbery and sentenced to 55 and 50 years of hard labour respectively. They were incarcerated in the notorious Louisiana State Pen, the largest and some say the bloodiest prison in America, for years infamous for its brutal forced labour and the depth of the sexual violence inmates had to endure. It was in Angola that Woodfox and Wallace met Robert King, who had been convicted of murder, a charge of which he, too, has always protested his innocence.
Louisiana State Pen is nicknamed ‘Angola’ because was built on the site of a plantation that had been worked mainly by Angolan slaves. It is still, King says, ‘run like a plantation’. Inside prison, the three men became politicized and joined the Black Panthers. They set up political classes, organized the other inmates, staged protests and a hunger strike to improve the brutal conditions.
In 1972, at a time that their political activities were causing particular concern to the prison authorities, Woodfox and Wallace were charged and convicted of the murder of prison guard Brent Miller. The conviction was based entirely on the hearsay evidence of other prisoners, some of whom were jailhouse informants and all of whom gave contradictory accounts of what happened. Evidence that might have proved their innocence, including a bloody fingerprint left at the scene that came from neither Woodfox nor Wallace was first suppressed, then ‘lost’. The jury that convicted them was all-white and comprised largely people who worked at Angola. Even Miller’s widow now acknowledges the men’s innocence. ‘If they did not do this’, she told a court hearing in 2008, ‘and I believe that they didn’t, they have been living a nightmare for 36 years!’
King was transferred to Angola two weeks after Miller’s killing. Despite the fact that he was in a prison 150 miles away when the murder took place, he was investigated for the killing, identified as a ‘conspirator’ and placed in solitary with Wallace and Woodcock. The following year King was charged and convicted of the murder of another prisoner, a crime of which again he has always maintained his innocence. The evidence on which the Angola 3 were convicted is barely credible. The evidence that they were as they claim framed for their political activities inside seems incontestable.
It took King 26 years to win an appeal against his conviction. He was released in 2001 after that conviction was overturned (though only after he was forced to make a plea bargain and plead guilty to conspiracy). He had spent 29 years in solitary confinement. Wallace and Woodfox have both had their convictions overturned in federal court. But Louisiana attorney general Buddy Caldwell has contested those decisions. Both men remain in jail, both in solitary confinement. One is 70 years old, the other 65. Caldwell has called Woodfox ‘the most dangerous man on the planet”, while Angola prison governor Burl Cain has insisted that he will never release either from solitary because ‘he’d be organising young new inmates’. Woodfox and Wallace, he insists, will remain in solitary for the rest of their days. It’s Shawshank but without the redemption.
And yet, however extraordinary the story of the Angola 3 seems, it is not that extraordinary. There are 80,000 prisoners in solitary in America, many of whom have been confined for years. ’I have interviewed a number of of people who’ve spent 10-12 years in solitary confinement’, says Nick Trenticosta, Wallace and Woodfox’s lawyer. ’Almost all of the people are severely damaged. They’re potted plants. Their will to live really doesn’t exist any more. They become shells of their former selves.’
All of which makes Robert King’s attitude remarkable. He has written an autobiography, helped make In the Land of the Free, a film about the Angola 3, took part in the Crossing Continents documentary, and campaigns ceaselessly for the release of Woodfox and Wallace. He is not simply highly articulate, but astonishingly full of fortitude and hope. He is anything but a ‘potted plant’. If any redemption is to found in this story, it is in his voice.