40 Years in Solitary Confinement

AMY GOODMAN: It won’t receive much attention in the corporate media, but today marks a four-decade milestone that critics see as a national shame. It’s been 40 years to the day, April 17th, 1972, or 14,600 days ago, that Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox have been held in solitary confinement in Louisiana. The state says they were guilty of murdering a guard at Angola Prison, but Wallace, Woodfox and their network of supporters say they were framed for their political activism as members of the Black Panthers.

Woodfox and Wallace founded the Angola chapter of the Black Panther Party in ’71. A third prisoner, Robert King, joined them a year later. The three campaigned for better working conditions and racial solidarity between inmates, as well as an end to rape and sexual slavery. But their organizing came to a halt after all three were charged and found guilty of committing murders inside the prison. King was held for 29 years in solitary confinement after prison officials framed him for a different murder. He was finally released in 2001 when his conviction was overturned. He pleaded guilty to a lesser offense. Woodfox and Wallace remain behind bars to this day, despite no physical evidence tying them to the crime scene and accusations that prison guards coerced incriminating testimony from other prisoners.

This is how Amnesty International describes their imprisonment in solitary confinement: quote, "23 hours a day isolated in a small cell, four steps long, three steps across. Three times a week for exercise in an outdoor cage, weather permitting. A few hours every week to shower or simply walk. Rare, fleeting human contact with prison guards, let alone with family. No human being deserves this," Amnesty wrote.

In recent years, Woodfox has won appeals overturning his conviction, only to see those rulings reversed. But the struggle for justice in the Angola 3 case continues. Today, to mark this 40-year anniversary of their placement in solitary confinement, Amnesty International says it will deliver a petition to Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal that bears the signatures of tens of thousands of people from 125 countries.

We’re going right now to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where we’re joined by two guests. Robert King, the only freed member of the Angola 3, he was released in 2001. He had spent 31 years in prison, 29 in solitary confinement. And we’re joined by Everette Thompson, Southern regional director with Amnesty International USA. They’re joining us from the studios of Louisiana Public Broadcasting in Baton Rouge.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Robert King, the significance of this day, in solitary for 40 years today?

ROBERT KING: Yes. Thank you, Amy. We’re proud to be here. Thanks for having us.

And, yes, this day, April the 17, mark 40 years in which Albert and Herman has been held in Louisiana State Prison at Angola in solitary confinement in a cell, six by nine by 12, for 40 years. And beyond today, we’ll be counting. And so, this day mark—it’s significant, because it’s 40 years, and we want the state of Louisiana and we want the world to know that we are still focusing on this case. This is a total violation of human rights and civil rights, and it is ongoing. And we are commemorating this, and we want to make sure that, again, that the public officials here understand that we’ll continue to make sure that this case stays out—

AMY GOODMAN: I want to—

ROBERT KING: —in front of the public, because public opinion matters.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to an excerpt of Herman Wallace speaking in a recording he made by telephone describing his prison cell.

HERMAN WALLACE: You know, where we stay, we’re usually in the cell for 23 hours, you know, and an hour out. I’m not "out." I may come out of the hole here, but I’m still locked up on that unit. I’m locked up. I can’t get around that. Anywhere I go, I have to be in chains. I mean, chains has become a part of my—my existence. And that’s one of the things that, you know, I think people have to fully understand. But understanding it is one thing, but experiencing it is quite another.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Herman Wallace, in solitary confinement today for 40 years. Everette Thompson, why is Amnesty International involved with this case?

EVERETTE THOMPSON: Yeah, thank you again, Amy Goodman, for inviting us here, and it’s truly an honor to be here for Angola 3 to lift up human rights.

Amnesty International believes that solitary confinement should only be used in the most extreme cases. And when we look at Albert and Herman, they have spent over 14,500 days in solitary confinement—four decades. Truly, this is cruel, this is inhumane, and this is degrading. This is not uplifting human rights of any person. And we believe that human rights is—you know, is for everyone. It doesn’t end if you’re in prison. It doesn’t end if you’re on a playground. But everywhere you exist, your human rights should be carried with you. This is a true violation of their human rights.

AMY GOODMAN: Robert King, explain how you came to be known as the Angola 3. You’re the only one of the three who is out of prison right now.

ROBERT KING: Yes. Well, we became known as the Angola 3 actually because of a former comrade and friend, Malik Rahim. He was a former member of the Black Panther Party who remembered that, after three decades, we were still in prison. And so, what he did was form a group. He went to some former Panthers and activists and decided to form a support group. And from the support group, the name derived. We were connected, because we were all members of the Black Panther Party. We did not have the same charges. We went to prison on different charges.

And after we got the support and after, you know, people came on board, they decided that we would be known as the Angola 3, because it was designated by the state officials that we would be held in solitary confinement throughout our period in Angola. If that meant the rest of our life, so be it. And because of this and the group felt that Angola tabbed us—they dubbed us, because of our belief, because of our political belief. And as you pointed out, Herman and Albert and other folks recognized the violation of human rights in prison, and they were trying to achieve a better prison and living conditions. And as a result of that, they were targeted. But we became known as a result of—we didn’t name ourselves, and we did not have the—we weren’t charged, we did not go to court at the same time, but we were dubbed, you know, Angola 3. The name stuck, and—

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Robert, while they are in solitary confinement now for 40 years, you were in solitary confinement for almost 30, for 29 years. Describe that experience. What does that mean?

ROBERT KING: Well, I can tell you, Amy, as I’ve described in former writings and—being in solitary confinement is not—is not easy. If the soul cry, if you could hear the soul cry, you know, if you’re in that type of condition, you can feel it. You can hear the soul cry, or know literal tears. You’re in a position and a condition, circumstances that you will never be released from. And like Herman described, everywhere you go, you’re bound, you’re in chains, you’re in a cell, six by nine by 12. There is not much—there’s not much room. You have to become acclimated to short distances. And, you know, there are lots of things, you know, thoughts that you can have, because you have lots of time. And I think your thoughts are the thoughts about your condition, about all that you have. They don’t have much other accommodation in prison, because the bare minimum, the necessities, you don’t have that.

AMY GOODMAN: Everette Thompson, does Amnesty International consider the Angola 2 now, because Robert King is out, Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox, political prisoners?

EVERETTE THOMPSON: We consider—we consider Angola 3 and Angola 2 as individual at risk. We are very—we’re deeply concerned with everything that is happening to them, particularly their violation of human rights and the use of solitary confinement in their case. We have continued to monitor this case for years. They have been a part of the Amnesty International case dossiers for a long time. And we are committed to fighting for justice in this case and to make sure that Albert and Herman are released from solitary confinement and that Governor Jindal continue to look at this and examine what is happening in their case and be on the right side of justice.

AMY GOODMAN: What is the rationale for them being in solitary confinement for 40 years?

ROBERT KING: Actually, Amy, there is really no rationale. I think the rationale comes with the attorney general, the state’s attorney general. As has been pointed out and you must know, that this case has been—Albert Woodfox’s case has been overturned twice. Herman Wallace’s case has been recommended to be overturned twice. There are judges that have—state judges that have overturned Herman’s case. There is no rationale for being held in solitary confinement. Of course, the warden of the state of Louisiana, Angola State Prison, has asserted on many occasions, in deposition, to quote, that Albert Woodfox is allegedly "one of the most dangerous men in the world." Of course, Albert Woodfox has been in solitary confinement for 40 years now. The write-ups are minimum. The last time Albert Woodfox had a write-up probably was 25 years ago, if that. Or no disciplinary records at all, is exemplary. And yet and still, they’re still being held in solitary-like conditions in prison. And there is no rationale, no logical rationale, no logical or penological reason why they should be held in solitary confinement—or, for that matter, in prison. This is a double whammy. We are dealing with a double whammy here. We are not just focusing on Herman’s and Albert’s civil or human rights violation, but there is question also as to whether or not they committed this crime. All the evidence has been undermined in this case. And they are still being held, you know, irrationally, in solitary confinement.

AMY GOODMAN: To coincide—

EVERETTE THOMPSON: And I’d like to add, I mean, even—even with Herman and Albert, in 1996, Louisiana did prison policy reform, and it stated that there—that you can no longer use the original cause for lockdown as a way to keep people in solitary confinement. What we have noticed with Albert and in Herman’s case, that each time they come up for review to released from solitary confinement, they get stamped right back. They cannot be released from solitary confinement, because of original cause of lockdown. And that is a violation of their own policy that Louisiana has actually implemented, never mind the fact that this violates international covenant on civil and political rights as well as the U.N. Convention Against Torture. This is a clear, a grave abuse of human rights, and happening with Albert and Herman right now.

AMY GOODMAN: To coincide with the 40th anniversary, a new documentary is being released on the Angola 3 called Herman’s House. It’s based on phone conversations with Herman Wallace documenting and reflecting on his life in solitary confinement. In this clip, he works with [artist Jackie Sumell] to draw up plans for a house for him to live in, only in his mind. This is Herman Wallace describing that house.

HERMAN WALLACE: Jackie, in your letter, you asked me, what sort of house does a man who lives in a six-foot-by-nine-foot cell dream of? In the front of the house, I have three squares of gardens. The gardens are the easiest for me to imagine, and I can see they would be certain to be full of gardenias, carnations and tulips. This is of the utmost importance. I would like for guests to be able to smile and walk through flowers all year long. On the wall shared with the kitchen is the wall of revolutionary fame. I would like to see three to five portraits with these revolutionaries, such as Gabriel Prosser, Denmark Vesey, Nat Turner, John Brown and, of course, Harriet Tubman. Into the upstairs master bedroom, there is a king-size bed, African art and mirrored ceilings. There is a door leading from the master bedroom to the master bathroom, with a six-foot-by-nine-foot hot tub. The cell I presently live in is but six feet by eight feet.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Herman Wallace, a new documentary about the Angola 3. I want to thank Everette Thompson of Amnesty International USA and Robert King for joining us from Louisiana Public Broadcasting. Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox have been in solitary confinement today, April 17th, for 40 years.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we will talk about the trial of the anti-Muslim extremist in Norway who killed 77 people last summer. We’ll speak with Norwegian peace activist, peace scholar, Johan Galtung. Stay with us. 

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