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How the Angola Three Became National Symbols of Injustice

Albert Woodfox has been in solitary confinement since the 1970s, and he's supposed to be let out this week—but Louisiana is dragging its feet.

by Mike Pearl
Jun 11 2015, 11:15pm

Albert Woodfox in prison, via Amnesty USA

It's hard to explain how, of all the inmates in the world, Albert Woodfox is the one who's been in solitary confinement the longest. But since the Nixon administration, the dude has been in what prisoners usually call "the hole."

Of course, it's even harder to understand why, at this very moment, Woodfox is still in solitary—even though on Monday a federal judge ordered him to be released.

"He has spent 43 years now fighting to prove his innocence in a cell the size of a parking space, and we believe it's time for him to walk free," Jasmine Heiss of Amnesty USA told VICE.

Woodfox is the last of the Angola Three, a trio kept in solitary confinement for decades at Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola, one of the South's toughest and most notoriously corrupt prisons. He was convicted of armed robbery in 1971, and sent to Angola. Along with a man named Herman Wallace, Woodfox was convicted of murdering a prison guard a year later. Robert King, who was convicted of murdering another inmate in 1973, went on to join them in solitary confinement for the next three decades.

Complicating matters, there's more than a shadow of a doubt he had anything to do with the murder that has robbed him of a complete existence.

According to Lockdown at Angola, Scott Fleming's famous account of the trio's lives and imprisonment, it's true that the Angola Three were politically active. They started a chapter of the Black Panthers in prison, apparently in order to fend off the rape and prostitution that they claimed was akin to sex slavery. Woodfox told Fleming, "It wasn't much help to go to the security, because most of the security people were condoning that type of activity."

The grisly murder that sealed Woodfox and Wallace's fate was the stabbing of a white prison guard named Brent Miller, which took place on the same busy day in April 1972 as a work stoppage and firebombing of a guard tower at the prison. They were thrown in solitary soon after. Woodfox, alleged ringleader of the Black Panthers, was prosecuted first for the stabbing and convicted in 1973, and Wallace was tried and convicted a year later.

But the case against Woodfox was mostly built on the eyewitness testimony of a serial rapist named Hezekiah Brown.

The warden at the time, Murray Henderson, later admitted that he promised Brown a pardon if he testified, and Henderson also gifted Brown a carton of cigarettes every week. Further, supposedly in exchange for testifying, the prisoner was allowed to live in a relatively pleasant area of Angola called the "dog pen."

Meanwhile, Woodfox, King, and Wallace lived in isolated cells "the size of a parking space," according to Heiss of Amnesty USA.

Jean Casella of Solitary Watch, a group that has studied the circumstances of Woodfox's imprisonment, told VICE that Woodfox is kept in his cell for 23 to 24 hours a day, and "allowed out only for showers, and for an hour of exercise alone a few times a week." The only break in his solitude is that he "might be able to exchange a few words with others on their cell block while going to and from these activities," she added.

James "Buddy" Caldwell, Louisiana's attorney general, wrote in 2013 that the occasional mingling means Woodfox has "never been held in solitary confinement while in the Louisiana penal system." Instead, he and the other members of the Angola Three "have been held in protective cell units known as CCR," Caldwell argued. (CCR stands for "closed cell restricted.")

But according to Heiss, "Every state has its preferred euphemisms for solitary confinement. In Louisiana, it's 'closed cell restricted.'" Heiss says it's all a big, ill-defined muddle, and to make matters worse, "there are no federal-level checks on the way solitary confinement is used in our country."

As has been pointed out in the past, solitary confinement is a living nightmare. According to a February 2014 study in the American Journal of Public Health, inmates in solitary are seven times more likely to self-harm then those who are allowed to interact normally with other inmates, and according to data cited by the ACLU, in California in 2004, 73 percent of suicides in prison occurred in solitary, even though solitary confinement accounted for less than 10 percent of prisoners.

After the Angola Three had spent decades in tiny, isolated cells, investigators like Fleming and Malik Rahim started advocating on their behalf.

Woodfox's murder conviction was first overturned in 1992 because of "systematic discrimination," but rather than leading to his release, that ruling kicked off over 20 years of wrangling by Louisiana authorities. Attorney General Caldwell is still at it, having pushed for another trial—Woodfox's third—as recently as this past February.

In addition to doubts about Hezekiah Brown's testimony, according to the Los Angeles Times, the other witnesses who testified that they saw the three Black Panthers leaving the scene of the crime later recanted their testimony. They've since said they only testified after being pressured by prison officials. A former prisoner even said another inmate confessed committing the murder to him.

According to Louisiana journalist and former Angola prisoner Billy Wayne Sinclair, that other prisoner has a name: Irvin "Life" Breaux. Breaux, he claims, was another activist who confessed to the killing, and thought of Miller as collateral damage. "Sometimes people have to die to further the struggle, but Miller was not supposed to die," Breaux reportedly said.

Breaux died in a prison fight long before his testimony could have proven useful. He was reportedly trying to stop a rape at the time.

The Coalition to Free the Angola 3, an advocacy group, told the New Orleans Times-Picayune that there's now a total lack of physical evidence pointing to their guilt. A bloody fingerprint at the crime scene doesn't match the defendants. However, the coalition can't find living witnesses to provide eyewitness testimony countering the damning testimony already on the record, and they say that DNA evidence that could have matched someone else has been lost, so there's no physical evidence, either.

But the Angola Three haven't exactly been unsuccessful in their legal battles. In 2001, Robert King, the one who was never actually convicted of the murder, was freed, and subsequently became an activist. To this day, he spends his time testifying to the innocence of his co-defendants and working as a vocal opponent of solitary confinement.

Also, in March of 2008, the remaining two were briefly moved out of solitary confinement, but that only lasted until December of 2008. The Angola warden at the time, Burl Cain, explained the need for Woodfox's solitary confinement by saying in a deposition, "I still know he has the Black Pantherism," and that if he let him back into the general population, "He'd be organizing young new inmates." Cain added that if that were to happen, "I'd have the blacks chasing after him, and I'd have chaos and conflict."

Then, in 2013, Wallace was freed. Wallace had been diagnosed with advanced cancer, and his declining health bolstered the case for his release. Days after he was released from prison, he died. But Attorney General Caldwell fought hard to the end, so while Wallace may have died repeating the words, "I'm free," he had a fresh indictment for murder hanging over his head.

Still, no member of the Angola Three has died in prison, and at 68 years old, Woodfox stands a good chance of making it out well before his time comes. Monday's federal court order called for his freedom to be "unconditional," and barred the attorney general from prosecuting him again. It also called for his release to be "immediate."

That didn't happen though. On Tuesday, Louisiana Attorney General Caldwell appealed. Woodfox's release was stayed by the US Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, in order for the court to "decide whether to accept the state's appeal," according to the Associated Press.

Heiss is somewhat concerned about Woodfox's health, saying he's now suffering from high blood pressure, and diabetes, and that isolation has taken its toll psychologically. According to Heiss, Woodfox has reported anxiety, and a feeling like he's "standing on the edge of nothingness, looking into emptiness."

The earliest he could be released is on Friday at 1 PM.

But as Angela Allen-Bell of the Southern University Law Center told the AP, "He does not allow himself to be very optimistic about things. I think that that is a coping mechanism that he has developed."

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Malik Rahim