Albert Woodfox, Herman “Hooks” Wallace, and Robert “King” Wilkerson grew up in the racially charged late 1960s and early 1970s in the poverty-stricken public housing projects of New Orleans.
All three were imprisoned for petty crimes. While there, they founded the first prison-based chapter of the Black Panther Party in an effort to protect their fellow prisoners from sexual exploitation and gang violence, and to challenge the racism, brutality, and corruption of the notoriously crooked prison administration. The administration, naturally, saw them as troublemakers.
At the time they were organizing inside Angola, the Black Panthers were under fire across America. They were the target of a secret FBI program called the Counterintelligence program (Cointelpro) to quash political dissent in an America torn asunder by civil strife over the Vietnam War and the aftermath of the half-realized civil rights movement. Progress on racial equality hadn’t reached Louisiana by 1972, and would take even longer to gain any foothold at Angola. The prison–all 18,000 acres of it–had been a slave plantation prior to the American civil war. Even after it became a prison, it remained a working plantation, with black prisoners forced to work in the cotton and sugar cane fields for their meals. Today prisoners–over 80 percent of them black — work in the same fields where slaves worked two centuries ago, for four pennies per hour.
White guards and administrators often came from families in which generations worked at the prison; many were lifelong members in high standing of the segregationist Ku Klux Klan, and happy to admit it. They didn’t like to see black organizing, in fact, they deeply feared it.
When a white prison guard turned up dead in a black dormitory at Angola in 1972, the powers that be leapt into action, terrorizing black prisoners with unprovoked beatings and the forcible shaving of afros, which were correctly viewed as political symbols of black pride. Eventually, they pinned the crime on Woodfox and Wallace, the reputed ringleaders of the new Black Panthers chapter at Angola. The absurdity of the case against them was appalling: Fellow inmates were paid off–one for just a carton of cigarettes a week–to falsely testify that Woodfox and Wallace were the killers. One of the eyewitness was legally blind. The prosecution conveniently lost key evidence; other exculpatory clues were never followed up. In front of all-white juries, Woodfox and Wallace were convicted and sentenced to life in prison. The prison sent them to its closed-cell restricted cellblock (CCR)–a fancy term for solitary confinement. They’ve been there ever since.
Less than a year later, Wilkerson–another known Panther — was convicted of murdering a fellow inmate. Again, evidence was lost and testimony was coerced and paid for. Another man confessed to the crime and was convicted for it, but the authorities refused to take that fact into account in Wilkerson’s trial. After a conviction in front of another all-white jury, Wilkerson joined Wallace and Woodfox in CCR. He remained there for 29 years until 2001, when he was exonerated after proving massive prosecutorial misconduct, and freed.
Attorneys for Woodfox and Wallace are currently trying to win them new trials, at which they hope to introduce new evidence of prosecutorial misconduct, as well as new evidence of the men’s innocence.
The American Civil Liberties Union, meanwhile, has filed suit charging that three decades in solitary confinement constitutes cruel and unusual punishment–a violation of the men’s civil rights–and calling for Woodfox and Wallace to be released into the general prison population, as well a monetary restitution for all three.
For the administrations part, it claims it locked the Angola Three away for their own physical protection. But the truth is more sinister; Woodfox says they isolated the three activists because they wanted to contain a kind of “moral contagion,” to stanch the flow of revolution inside the prison walls. Woodfox and Wallace see themselves as the subjects of a kind of political quarantine.
Anita Roddick is the founder of the Body Shop. Her political writings can be read on her website anitaroddick.com. Her latest book is Take It Personally: How to Make Conscious Choices to Change the World.
She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org