It’s Wednesday morning and I’m writing the words I always hoped, but never thought, I would: Herman Wallace is a free man. He has been released from the Elaine Hunt Correctional Centre in Louisiana, after Judge Jackson, Louisiana’s district judge, overturned Herman’s 1974 conviction for the murder of prison officer Brent Miller.
Herman is free. Those words need repeating. He is free from the solitary cell in which he has sat for the most part of 41 years. Free from the single hour of recreation he would take when he could. Free from the confines of a 2×3 metre cell, free from a life without social interaction, free from prison.
This justice is bittersweet
Herman is free. But while we all celebrate this moment, and think of Herman finally getting justice, it is with a bittersweet taste. This has taken 41 years. For 41 years Herman and Albert Woodfox (who is still incarcerated in solitary) have spent their time in conditions which can only be described as cruel, inhuman and degrading. They have lived in tiny cells for 23 hours a day, for 41 years. If the weather is fine, they would be allowed outside for an hour a day, alone, three times a week. Lone recreation. In a cage.
Herman and Albert's time in solitary has been described by a Magistrate Judge as
"durations so far beyond the pale’ she could not find ‘anything even remotely comparable in the annals of American jurisprudence"
This also has a bittersweet taste because Herman Wallace is dying. He has advanced liver cancer and may have a matter of days to live. He may only get to sip freedom, rather than taste a gulp. His view of Baton Rouge would have been fleeting, through an ambulance window as he was taken to hospital – in a vehicle which stood outside Elaine Hunt Correctional Centre for hours as the State of Louisiana appeared to be doing whatever they could to keep a dying man incarcerated.
It is bittersweet because he will not get to walk down the streets on which he grew up, will not be able to sit in the New Orleans sun, will not get to finally see what freedom really looks like. Herman is now in hospital, his health worsening, and nearer to the end of his life.
Write a message to Herman and we'll send it to him in hospital.
For 41 years all Herman would have seen from the inside of his cell was a small area just beyond the bars at the front. For 41 years he has slept on a mattress on a steel bed platform. For 41 years his natural light has been limited to a very small window at the back of his cell. Now, as he spends his days in his hospital bed, we can only hope that he is comfortable, and at ease. Herman is dying, but he knows he is free, he can finally feel freedom.
Herman IS free, and he will die a free man, he will die knowing that thousands of people around the world have linked their arms with his, and have stood up for all of the Angola 3 – for Herman, Albert and Robert – stood up for compassion, stood up for what is right and stood up for justice.
The Angola 3
When Herman was sent to Louisiana State Penitentiary – known as 'Angola' – in the 1970s, racism was rife. Inmates were racially segregated and guarded exclusively by white officers, as well as armed white immates. The culture of violence that infused prison life was reflected in the high numbers of murders inside, and a widespread use of sexual slavery among inmates.
It was in this toxic environment that Herman, along with fellow inmate Albert Woodfox, founded a prison chapter of the Black Panther Party (BPP). They were later joined by Robert King and together the three young black men campaigned for fair treatment and better conditions for inmates; racial solidarity between black and white inmates; and an end to the rape and sexual slavery.
They believe they were targeted for their political beliefs and membership of the BPP, and sent to solitary confinement. That was 1974.
Robert King has said
"[Herman and Albert] tried to change conditions…the prison was considered the worst in the nation. They brought people together and brought in an ideology that said that despite the fact that you were prisoners, you still had some rights. Because of this, the administration saw them as being threats and they have paid dearly."
Between them, Robert and Albert have spent more than 100 years in solitary. Robert King was freed in 2001. And, as of yesterday, Herman is free. Albert, sadly, remains in isolation to this day, despite no meaningful review of his incarceration.
Herman and Albert have indeed paid dearly, but for now, I hope we will hold Herman up in our thoughts, and know that he is a free man. Justice has been a long time coming, and while it comes late, we must all celebrate that is has come. Herman has won. A bittersweet victory, but a victory for justice nonetheless.
Herman is free.