At the heart of Louisiana’s prison system sits the State Prison at Angola, a former slave plantation where little has changed in several hundred years. Angola has been made notorious from books and films such as Dead Man Walking and The Farm: Life at Angola, as well as its legendary bi-annual prison rodeo and the Angolite, a prisoner-written magazine published within its walls. Visitors are often overwhelmed by its size—18,000 acres that include a golf course (for use by prison staff and some guests), a radio station, and a massive farming operation that ranges from staples like soybeans and wheat to traditional Southern plantation crops like cotton.
Recent congressional attention and legal developments have again brought Angola into the limelight. The focus this time is on the prison’s practice of keeping some inmates in solitary confinement for decades, especially two of Angola’s best-known residents—Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox—the remaining members of the Angola Three, activists widely seen as having been interned in solitary confinement as punishment for their political activism. As a result of outside attention from allies, new legal developments have brought Wallace and Woodfox closer to freedom.
Norris Henderson, co-director of Safe Streets/Strong Communities, a grassroots criminal justice organization in New Orleans, spent 20 years at Angola—a relatively short time in a prison where 85 percent of its 5,100 prisoners are expected to die behind its walls. "Six hundred folks been there over 25 years," he explains. "Lots of these guys been there over 35 years. Think about that: a population that’s been there since the 1970s. Once you’re in this place, it’s almost like you ain’t going nowhere, that barring some miracle, you’re going to die there."
Prisoners at work in Angola—photo from the Angolite
Henderson explains. "Eighteen thousand acres of choice farmland. Even to this day, you could have machinery that can do all that work, but you still have prisoners doing it instead." Not only do prisoners at Angola toil at the same work as enslaved Africans hundreds of years ago, but many of the white guards come from families that have lived on the grounds since the plantation days.
Nathaniel Anderson, a current inmate who has served nearly 30 years of a lifetime sentence, agrees. "People on the outside should know that Angola is still a plantation with every type and kind of slave conceivable," he says.
In 1971 the Black Panther Party was seen as a threat to this country’s power structure—not only in the inner cities, but in the prisons. At Orleans Parish Prison, the entire jail population refused to cooperate for one day in solidarity with New Orleans Panthers who were on trial. "I was in the jail at the time of their trial," Henderson said. "The power that came from those guys in the jail, the camaraderie…. Word went out through the jail, because no one thought the Panthers were going to get a fair trial. We decided to do something. We said, ‘The least we can do is to say the day they are going to court, no one is going to court.’"
The action was successful and inspired prisoners to do more. "People saw what happened and said, ‘We shut down the whole system that day,’" he remembers. "That taught the guys that if we stick together we can accomplish a whole lot of things."
Wallace and Woodfox had recently become members of the Black Panther Party and, as activists, they were seen as threats to the established order of the prison. They were organizing among the other prisoners, conducting political education, and mobilizing for civil disobedience to improve conditions.
Robert King Wilkerson, like many inmates, joined the Black Panther Party while already imprisoned at Orleans Parish Prison. He was transferred to Angola and was immediately placed in solitary confinement (known as Closed Cell Restriction or CCR)—confined alone in his cell with no human contact for 23 hours a day. He later found out he had been transferred to solitary because he was accused of an attack he could not have committed as it happened before he had been moved to Angola.
Herman Wallace’s drawing of his cell
In March 1972, not long after they began organizing for reform from within Angola, Wallace and Woodfox were accused of killing a correctional officer. They were also moved to solitary, where they remained for nearly 36 years until March of this year, when they were moved out 4 days after a congressional delegation led by Congressperson John Conyers arranged a visit to the prison. Legal experts have said this is the longest time anyone in the U.S. has spent in solitary. Amnesty International recently declared, "The prisoners’ prolonged isolation breached international treaties which the U.S. has ratified, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention against Torture."
Wilkerson, Wallace, and Woodfox became known internationally as the Angola Three. Wilkerson remained in solitary for nearly 29 years, until he was exonerated and released from prison in 2001. Since his release, Wilkerson has been a tireless advocate for his friends still incarcerated. "I’m free of Angola," he often says, "but Angola will never be free of me."
Swimming Against the Current
Wallace and Woodfox have the facts on their side. Bloody fingerprints at the scene of the crime do not match their prints. Witnesses against them have recanted, while other witnesses with nothing to gain have testified that they were nowhere near the crime. There is evidence of prosecutorial misconduct, such as purchasing inmate testimony and not disclosing it to the defense. Even the widow of the slain guard has spoken on their behalf. Most recently, their case received attention from Representative Conyers, head of the House Judiciary Committee, and Cedric Richmond, chair of the Louisiana House Judiciary Committee, who scheduled hearings on the issue. In July, a Louisiana Magistrate Judge issues an opinion that Woodfox was innocent of the assault on the corrections officer and recommended his release. While this ruling will not lead to Woodfox’s immediate freedom, it does return the case to the judge overseeing it, which could then lead to Woodfox’s release. Because they were convicted on the same faulty evidence, this also represents a positive development in Wallace’s case.
But this is more than the story of innocent men struggling to prove their innocence. The story of the Panthers at Angola is a struggle for justice. "They swam against the current in Blood Alley," says Nathaniel Anderson, a current inmate who has been inspired by Wallace and Woodfox’s legacy. "For men to actually have the audacity to organize for the protection of young brothers who were being victimized ruthlessly was an extreme act of rebellion."
Like many prisoners during that time, Norris Henderson was introduced to organizing by Black Panthers and later became a leader of prison activism during his time at Angola. The efforts of Wilkerson, Woodfox, Wallace, and other Panthers in prison were vital to bringing improvements in conditions, stopping sexual assault, and building alliances among different groups of prisoners. Henderson says, "This was at the height of the Black power movement. We were understanding that all we got is each other. In the nighttime there would be guys in the jail talking, giving history lessons, discussing why we find ourselves in the situation we find ourselves. They started educating folks around how we could treat each other. The Nation of Islam was growing in the prison at the same time. You had different folks bringing knowledge. You had folks who were hustlers that were then listening and learning. Everybody was coming into consciousness."
Prison activism, and outside support for activists behind bars, can be tremendously powerful, says Henderson. "In the early 1970s people started realizing we’re all in this situation together. First, at Angola, we pushed for a reform to get a law library. That was one of the first conditions to change. Then, we got the library and guys became aware of what their rights were. We started to push to improve the quality of food and to get better medical care. Once they started pushing the envelope, a whole bunch of things started to change. Angola was real violent then, you had inmate violence and rape. The people running the prison system benefit from people being ignorant. But we educated ourselves. Eventually, you had guys in prison proposing legislation."
This was a time of reforms and grassroots struggles in prisons across the U.S. Uprisings such as the Attica rebellion were resulting in real change. Today, many of the gains from those victories have been overturned and prisoners have even less recourse to change than ever before. "Another major difference," Henderson explains, is that "you had federal oversight over the prisons at that time, someone you could complain to and say my rights are being violated. Today, we’ve lost that right."
Working for criminal justice is work that benefits us all, says Henderson. "Most folks in prison are going to come out of prison," he states. "We should invest in the quality of that person. We should start investing in the redemption of people."
After decades of efforts by lawyers and activists, Wallace and Woodfox have been released from solitary and the positive developments in their legal battles have brought hope to many who have been following their case. However, Wallace and Woodfox remain behind bars, punished for standing up against a system that has grown larger and more deadly. And the abuse does not end there. "There are hundreds more guys who have been in [solitary] a long time too," Henderson adds. "This is like the first step in a thousand-mile journey."
Jordan Flaherty is an editor of Left Turn Magazine and a journalist based in New Orleans. Most recently, his writing can be seen in the anthology Red State Rebels (AK Press). A version of this article is featured in Left Turn Magazine and the Indypendent (www.indypendent.org).